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Death by misadventure: the death penalty in America

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Thursday, 20 January 2000

Vincent and Rafaela Sanchez were an elderly couple living in Chicago. Some time in 1986 they were brutally stabbed to death in the ‘safety’ of their own home, apparently the motive was robbery. This was a horrible crime – preying on the weak, taking human life for nothing and condemning every elderly person in the area and beyond to constant fear and vigilance. The man convicted of the murder, local gang member Aaron Patterson, was sentenced to death.

Just those facts make it simple – many will breathe a sigh of relief. Further details, however, are unsettling. Patterson was accused of the crime by a female relative who was also a suspect in the murder. She has since retracted her statements. The only other evidence against Patterson, a black man, was a confession. It was typed by the police but unsigned. The confession was obtained by John Burge of the Chicago PD, a man fired from the police force after investigations established that he had interrogated at least 40 black men using torture: electric shocks, beatings, Russian roulette, suffocation, burns and threats of death. 10 men who ‘confessed’ after interrogation by Burge are now on death row in Illinois. Patterson himself was interrogated for 25 hours during which he was beaten, kicked, threatened and suffocated. Despite this treatment he refused to sign the confession. There was no other evidence against him – no fingerprints, no murder weapon, no eye-witnesses, no recovered stolen items. There was physical evidence – footprints and fingerprints were recovered from the scene – they just did not match Patterson. The physical evidence has since been ‘lost’ by the police. Despite the lack of any physical or circumstantial evidence against him Patterson was found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt by a jury , sentenced to death and has not succeeded in any appeal to date.

For a man on death row Aaron Patterson is a lucky man. Lucky for two reasons. The first reason is that he is imprisoned in Illinois, a state that has recently imposed a death penalty moratorium. Governor Ryan of Illinois, a strong death penalty supporter, imposed the temporary ban on executions as he was troubled by the exoneration (proved actual innocence) of 13 men on death row in Illinois since it was reintroduced to the state in 1977. The number of exonerated men in Illinois is actually more than those who have been executed there since 1977: 12. Illinois has what you might call a bit of an "innocence problem".


The second, related, reason why Patterson is lucky is that he is the most recent cause celebre of the Northwestern University journalism department. It was journalism students at Northwestern who were instrumental in achieving the moratorium after they proved the innocence of a convicted death row inmate, Anthony Porter, for a school assignment. Porter had been convicted by a jury, exhausted all 3 tiers of appeal, unsuccessfully appealed for clemency to the Illinois Governor and came within 2 days of execution. In a matter of weeks the young journalism students not only punched holes in the reliability of evidence against Anthony Porter (evidence described on appeal as "overwhelming") they found the actual murderer and obtained from him a videotaped confession!

Since the Illinois decision 6 more states have introduced bills for a moratorium on the death penalty until they too can iron out their own ‘innocence problems’. The Nebraska legislature passed their bill but it was vetoed by the Governor. Fortunately, according to Presidential hopeful George ‘Dubya’ Bush Jr, Texas, the nations biggest killer, has never made a mistake. The state executes more people than many states combined but not (according to Dubya) innocent ones.

In fact, actual innocence is just the biggest and most troubling of problems plaguing the United States’ criminal justice system (known as ‘the machinery of death’). Even if one believes in the death penalty, and 75% of Americans do, there is strong evidence that the truly guilty who receive the death penalty are not necessarily the ones most people would consider to ‘deserve it’. It is common knowledge that most death row inmates are black. It is less well known that a number of death row inmates are not sadistic killers but battered women who kill their abusive husbands. Supporters of the death penalty, especially women, might also be troubled to know rape of itself (in some cases including knife wounds and ‘mild mutilation’) can never be grounds for receiving the death penalty in the US as the Supreme Court finds the crime insufficiently "serious". But convenience store robbers who cause death when they discharge a gun after they trip over, or when the gun is grabbed in a struggle, are usually "death eligible" (in fact this scenario is said to account for a majority of death row inmates in some states – violent men who kill their wives are a considerably lower proportion).

Do death penalty advocates really feel that Sandra Lockett, a woman who waited outside while her boyfriend accidentally shot a pawn store owner when the owner grabbed the gun during a robbery, forfeited her right to life? What about Monty Eddings, a 16 year old boy with a mental age of 13 who shot a police officer escaping his violently abusive step father because he was terrified of being returned home? They were both sentenced to death but escaped the electric chair 5-4 in the US Supreme Court. It is unlikely they would escape today.

How has the system in the US, to many the greatest nation on earth, gone so horribly wrong? If death row inmates are not deserving of death why would American people support the death penalty? How can there be an innocence problem? There are so many checks and balances: a defendant must be charged by police, a prosecutor must decide to seek the death penalty, the defendant has a lawyer, the jury must decide beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty and decide that they deserve death. Most cases have at least 8 different appeals and the defendant can always appeal for clemency from the Governor. How can 85 people, that’s right 85, go through this entire process and turn out to be irrefutably innocent?

A brief examination of the major stages players in the US criminal justice system exposes so many horrendous flaws that it creates reasonable doubt in my mind that any death row inmate is actually guilty or merits death.


Getting to trial: Police and Investigating Personnel

If we are honest with ourselves the presumption of innocence is a bit of a joke. Most jurors would be like me and think "well what is he doing here if he didn't do anything? The police wouldn't have arrested him". This thought would be especially strong if the defendant is some big black guy looking cranky in a bright orange uniform shackled to an armed guard. This perception endures even though everyone in the US knows the names Rodney King, Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo: black men who were respectively violently beaten; tortured and sodomized; and shot 41 times by police for the crime of just being black. We also know how confessions were produced by John Burge in Chicago. But the true level of police misconduct and incompetence is so striking is much more widespread that even cynics might expect. A FBI laboratory test established that DNA evidence eliminated about 25% of people that police identified as their prime suspects. What would have happened to these 5, 000 people before DNA testing? Traditional detection approaches such as eye-witness reports, identity parades and even confessions have been found notoriously unreliable, but juries are highly reliant on them Police and prosecutors will swear by their methods even after uncontroverted scientific evidence shows their suspect is innocent.

DNA and other scientific evidence has proved a powerful tool for exoneration in the US but it has also been a weapon against the innocent. In one scandal in West Virginia it was discovered a forensic investigator had completely faked all his lab results for a ten year period (that is 170 murder and rape convictions)! In mistake-free Texas the forensic pathologist Ralph Erdmann routinely falsified autopsy reports to give evidence prosecutors wanted in death penalty cases, his lab conduct included mixing up autopsy victim’s heads. Erdmann eventually ended up in prison but not on death row where some still reside as a result of his testimony. Other labs are manned by inexperienced or incompetent personnel who use standards way below the acceptable minimum – one bad chemist in San Francisco ruined 1000 drug convictions, how many dodgy scientists have not been exposed? But to juries scientific evidence is laden with credibility and scientific experts are incredibly difficult to contradict. James ‘Dr Death’ Grigson, also a Texan, gave expert psychiatric opinions leading to 115 death sentence from 134 cases. Grigson testified that Randall Adams had a sociopath personality disorder and assured a jury that he would definitely "kill again". Adams (immortalized in the movie The Thin Blue Line) came within 72 hours of execution, but was proved innocent of any crime.

Then there is police misconduct – framing and coercing - which occurred in 31 of the 67 cases where innocent people were exonerated after conviction by DNA evidence, a number of the Illinois cases and regularly in the controversy ridden Rampart division in LA (where a police officer shot an unarmed suspect then successfully had the paralyzed man convicted for his ‘attempted murder’). Finger-print planting scandals have emerged in two counties in California. In upstate New York the practice of state troopers was exposed when one bragged about planting finger prints in an FBI interview.

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This article was edited and added to on the 18th May, 2000, subsequent to its first publication here.

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About the Author

Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world can’t seem to get her a boyfriend.

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