Conferences on legal issues rarely attract public attention, given their dry discussions of arcane legal matters. But a recent meeting in Chicago drew worldwide press coverage. Among the lawyers and professors attending the conference on wrongful convictions and the death penalty were more than 30 former death row inmates.
Brochure from the Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty. According to more recent data, 75 death row inmates have been exonerated.
The wrongfully convicted include:
James Richardson -- The migrant farmworker was convicted in 1968 of poisoning seven of his children with pesticide. Prosecutors claimed he had bought life insurance policies for the children the day before they died and presented testimony of two jailhouse informants who said they had heard Richardson incriminate himself. Lawyers who later took on the case discovered that Richardson had not bought life insurance and that a babysitter who was with the children the night they died had been convicted of poisoning her husband. She later confessed to killing the children. Richardson was released in 1989 after a review of his case by then Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno. Richardson spent 21 years on death row, the longest for a wrongfully convicted person. (continued below)
Five years after being convicted in Mississippi of murdering her 9-month-old child, Sabrina Butler, here with her husband, was acquitted in a new trial. (Photo Credit: Michael S. Green, Associated Press)
Sabrina Butler -- She was sentenced to death in 1990 in Mississippi for murdering her 9-month-old baby. One of two women on the list of wrongfully convicted people, Butler said she performed CPR on her child when she found him not breathing and then took him to the hospital. The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1992, and in 1995 Butler was acquitted on evidence that the baby had died of kidney disease or sudden infant death syndrome.
Dennis Williams and Verneal Jimerson -- They were convicted along with two others for the 1978 murder of a young Illinois couple and spent 18 years on death row before three journalism students gathered new evidence showing that all four men had been wrongly convicted. The students interviewed suspects seen leaving the crime scene by a witness whose testimony police had ignored after charging the four with the crime. Two of the suspects confessed. DNA tests indicated that none of the four were involved in the crime. After charges were dropped, the Cook County state's attorney apologized to the four men, calling the case a “glaring example” of the justice system's fallibility.
Jonathan Treadway -- Convicted in 1974 of sodomizing and killing a 6-year-old boy in Arizona and sentenced to death, Treadway was granted a retrial by the state Supreme Court based on the incompetence of his trial counsel. He was acquitted of all charges after five pathologists testified that there was no evidence of sodomy and that the child had probably died of natural causes.
Joseph Green Brown -- Sentenced to death in 1974 for murder, rape and robbery, Brown spent 13 years on Florida's death row before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutors had knowingly allowed false testimony to be introduced at trial. The key evidence used against him was testimony of Ronald Floyd, whom Brown had turned in to police for an unrelated crime. Floyd later admitted that he had lied at trial and that he had testified in return for not being prosecuted himself for the same murder. After state courts rejected Brown's appeals, Brown filed a habeas corpus petition, and a federal court overturned his conviction. He came within 13 hours of execution.
Opponents of capital punishment took heart from the conference and the media coverage it attracted. “Certainly the American people are not in favor of executing innocent people,” says Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who attended the Chicago conference. “People don't always realize that there are people on death row who don't have lawyers. They see the federal cases, which are well-represented and take weeks. They don't see the quick trial in Alabama, where they pay attorneys $2,000 maximum to take a death penalty case. If more people realized this, they would accept a greater requirement of fairness, and many would be more open to applying a sentence of life without parole.”
Other legal experts are less sanguine about the conference's impact. “People who want to abolish the death penalty get energized by these kinds of conferences,” says Victor Streib, dean of Ohio Northern University Law School and an opponent of capital punishment for juvenile offenders. “They think some-thing like this will end support for the death penalty. I think people are concerned about wrongfully convicted people, but if you keep your finger on the public pulse with the polls, you'll find that support for the death penalty remains strong.”