Mistaken Identity 5 Contested Death Penalty Cases

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Despite controversy, capital punishment still enjoys widespread support in the United States. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, 65 percent of Americans support the use of the death penalty.
Of course, every death penalty case comes wrapped in some degree of debate, given deep disagreement over whether the death penalty is ever moral. Here is a by-no-means-exhaustive list of some of the most controversial cases of the 20th and 21st centuries: Davis: International Outrage (2011)

Davis’ case received national and international attention because of concerns about witness testimony. Seven of nine eyewitnesses who implicated Davis in the shooting later recanted their testimony, and others say that the man who originally implicated Davis was actually the killer. Public figures as diverse as death penalty opponent former President Jimmy Carter and conservative U.S. representative Bob Barr of Georgia called for reconsideration of Davis’ sentence, but on Sept. 20, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to grant him clemency. The next day, a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court failed.

Davis case triggered public ire in part because his sister has been fighting for his innocence for years, said UC Boulder’s Radelet. Having a strong advocate can make the difference between an inmate who dies without much fanfare and one who goes out amidst widespread support. But public mood has shifted on the death penalty too, Radelet said.

“What’s happened in the last 10 years in the United States is that there has been a dramatic increase in opposition to the death penalty,” said Radelet. “I think that’s part of why Troy Davis is getting attention.”

The Davis case also grabbed headlines because Davis had “a strong case for innocence,” Radelet said on the day of the execution.

“I have to admit, this one really stumps me,” Radelet said. “It really surprises me. I’m just astonished that they’re going to let this execution go forward.” [Execution Science: What’s the Best Way to Kill a Person?]

Credit: Paris Die-In, World Coalition Against the Death PenaltyAmid angry protests, Georgia inmate Troy Davis was put to death on Sept. 21, 2011 for the 1989 shooting of a police officer. Buck: Racial Bias? (2011)
In a rare move on Sept. 15, 2011, the Supreme Court halted the execution of Texas death row inmate Duane Buck. The stay was a surprise, because the Supreme Court rarely jumps in on death penalty cases unless there is doubt about the defendant’s innocence; in this case, it wasn’t Buck’s guilt that led the Supreme Court to step in, but the testimony of a psychologist at his sentencing who said that black criminals were more likely to commit violence in the future than criminals of other races. (Buck was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her friend in 1995.)

The psychologist’s comment has led to cries of racial bias, and in 2000, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (now a U.S. senator) recommended that six cases in which the psychologist gave the racially tainted testimony be reopened.

All the cases but Buck’s were, and all five of those defendants were re-sentenced to death. The Supreme Court will now decide whether to hear Buck’s case. If it doesn’t, Buck will have to again appeal to Texas’ Board of Pardon and Paroles, which has once before refused to commute his sentence to life in prison. If the board again turns down Buck’s request, only Texas Gov. Rick Perry could halt Buck’s execution.
Credit: Dan Bannister, Shutterstock and Vanzetti: Italian Anarchists (1927)

Death penalty controversy is not a new phenomenon. Italian immigrants Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in 1927 after a highly contested series of trials over the shooting death of two men during a 1920 armed robbery. [The History of Human Aggression]

Sacco and Vanzetti were followers of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, and anti-Italian sentiment almost certainly played a role in their execution, said Michael Radelet, a death penalty expert at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The accused men waged a then-unprecedented six-year legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court twice, and public figures (Albert Einstein among them) called for new trials. But even a confession to the murders by another man, ex-convict Celestino Madeiros, could not save Sacco and Vanzetti’s lives. They died in the electric chair on Aug. 23, 1927. Later, several anarchist leaders spoke out to say that Sacco was guilty but Venzetti was not, though historians still debate whether either man really pulled the trigger.
Credit: Public domain Leal: an International Incident (2011)

The controversy around Humberto Leal’s death was not focused on his guilt, but on his legal rights. Leal, a Mexican citizen, was convicted of the 1994 rape, kidnapping and murder of 16-year-old Adria Sauceda, whose body was found bludgeoned on a dirt road in San Antonio, Texas. But police had not informed Leal of his right to call the Mexican consulate upon his arrest, putting the case on shaky grounds.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that Leal and other Mexican nationals on death row had been denied their right to contact their consulate under the Vienna Convention. The Supreme Court in 2008 held that the International Court’s judgment was binding, but Congress would have to pass a law to ensure individual states would comply. That never happened.

Citing fears that Leal’s execution would harm America’s standing in the world, the Obama administration entreated the Supreme Court to stay the execution until Congress could pass the binding law. The Supreme Court concluded that Congress had plenty of time to do so, and denied the appeal. Leal died by lethal injection on July 7, 2011 on death row in Huntsville, Tex., above.
Credit: Nick DiFonzo from Houston, Texas Todd Willingham: Innocent of Arson? (2004)

Of the 235 people put to death during the tenure of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham might be the most controversial. Willingham was convicted and executed for the deaths of his three young daughters, who died in a fire at the family’s home. Prosecutors alleged that Willingham set the fire and killed the girls to cover up abuse; Willingham’s wife, who was not home at the time of the blaze, denied at the time that he abused his children.

The crux of Willingham’s case, however, revolved around whether the fire was set on purpose at all. Central to Willingham’s conviction was an analysis by deputy fire marshal Manuel Vasquez concluding that lighter fluid or some other accelerant had been spread throughout the hallways of the home. But in 2004, a second fire investigator, Gerald Hurst, looked into Willingham’s case. Hurst found multiple scientific errors in Vasquez’s report and concluded that there was no evidence of arson. A 2009 report by the Texas Forensic Science Commission would later come to the same conclusion.

Despite Hurst’s criticisms, both the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Perry declined to halt Willingham’s execution. He was put to death in 2004.

But that wasn’t the end of the Willingham case: In 2009, the case became intertwined with politics after Perry replaced three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission two days before a meeting on the report, leading critics to accuse the governor of trying to hush up talk of Willingham’s potential innocence. When the commission released its report in April 2011, it took no stance on Willingham’s guilt or innocence. [Read: 10 Political Protests That Change the World]

With Perry running for president, the Willingham case may again enter the public  consciousness. But an admission of fault is unlikely, UC Boulder’s Radelet said. There have only been a handful of post-mortem pardons in the U.S., one in 1891 in Illinois and one in January 2011, when then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter pardoned a disabled man executed in 1939, Radelet said. With Presdential politics at play, he said, there is even less motive to look deeply at the Willingham case.

“If Rick Perry ever admitted that Willingham was innocent, his political life would be threatened,” Radelet said.
Credit: CNN, via Stop Executions Now!

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