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Friday, December 02, 2005
Innocent or Just Not Proven Guilty?

As a followup to the post earlier today on the death penalty, John, a commenter on that post pointed us to this site on 100 cases where people were sentenced to death, but later found innocent.

But the criteria used for innocence is a little loose:

Criteria for inclusion on the list:
The definition of innocence that DPIC uses in placing defendants on the list is that they had been convicted and sentenced to death, and subsequently either a) their conviction was overturned and they were acquitted at a re-trial, or all charges were dropped; or b) they were given an absolute pardon by the governor based on new evidence of innocence.

To give an obvious example, is OJ innocent? No, clearly he's not. He was found not guilty, but as we all remember from Civics 101, not guilty does not mean he didn't do it. It just means that the state didn't prove he did it.

Let's take a look at some of the cases:

2. Samuel A. Poole North Carolina Conviction 1973 Charges Dismissed 1974
After being convicted of first degree burglary and given a mandatory death sentence, Poole had his conviction overturned by the N.C. Supreme Court because the case lacked substantial evidence that Poole was the person who broke into the home. (State v. Poole, 203 S.E.2d 786 (N.C. 1974)).

3. Wilbert Lee Florida Conviction 1963 Pardoned 1975
4. Freddie Pitts Florida Conviction 1963 Pardoned 1975
Although no physical evidence linked them to the deaths of two white men, Lee and Pitts' guilty pleas, the testimony of an alleged eyewitness, and incompetent defense counsel led to their convictions. The men were sentenced to death but maintained their innocence. After their convictions, another man confessed to the crime, the eyewitness recanted her accusations, and the state Attorney General admitted that the state had unlawfully suppressed evidence. The men were granted a new trial (Pitts v. State 247 So.2d 53 (Fla. 1971)) but were again convicted and sentenced to death. They were released in 1975 when they received a full pardon from Governor Askew, who stated he was "sufficiently convinced that they were innocent." (Florida Times-Union, 4/23/98).

Gee, they were convicted again, even after the eyewitness recanted her accusations and another man confessed to the crime? I'd hope Askew was right, but even he admits being only "sufficiently convinced".

23. Larry Fisher Mississippi Conviction 1984 Acquitted 1985

Larry Fisher was charged with the rape and murder of an 18-year-old high school student in Meridian Mississippi in 1983. A series of similar crimes had occurred in the same area and the pre-trial media coverage of the case was extensive. Fisher asked for a change of venue but was denied. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1984. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed his conviction and sentence because the saturation media coverage required a change of venue: "In a very real sense Fisher’s guilt was announced by the news media of Meridian, Mississippi, loudly and long before a Lauderdale County jury was ever impaneled to hear the case. By this he was denied his right to a fair trial before the trial began." (Fisher v. Mississippi, 481 So.2d 203, 206 (1985)). Fisher was re-tried two months later in a different county and was acquitted of all charges. (See Fisher v. Mississippi, 532 So.2d 992, 994 (1988) (upholding his conviction in a different case)). Fisher remained incarcerated because of a separate rape conviction.

Definitely stretching the concept of innocence to new limits. I am sure that given that Fisher had been convicted of another rape, or would be, that he's probably the guy. That he was acquitted on "all charges" is obviously false; that he was acquitted on the specific charges involving the 18-year-old high school student appears to be true.

BTW, one thing that amuses me. When you read the summaries, compare and contrast #6 and #17. When a jury takes only 15 minutes to acquit a man, it's evidence of innocence. When a jury takes only 15 minutes to convict a man, it's evidence of innocence.

There are some compelling stories in there that do seem obviously wrongful cases of imprisonment on death row, where the blood type was wrong, or where DNA evidence subsequently exonerated the accused. Great, and the better news is that there will be almost none of those types of convictions in the future, because now the DNA evidence will be recorded and preserved. The net result will be more and better convictions.

If you stake your case against the death penalty on innocence, what about cases where there is an abundance of conclusive evidence--DNA, videotape, etc? Because there will be more and more of those as time goes by given current trends.
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