Guilt, innocence and the American way

The first man to be freed from death row in the US because of DNA evidence remembers the moment his lawyer gave him the news as though it were yesterday.

”It is as clear as the vision before me now,” says Kirk Bloodsworth, who was exonerated in 1993 after nine years in prison.

He was sitting on his bunk in a death-row cell when his lawyer was ushered in and told him he was innocent and would be released in a few days. He began to weep.

”Of course I cried. Everyone cries at a birth,” he says. ”I have been born twice, once as a baby and once as a grown man, and after that I saw the whole world fresh.”

With clear, free eyes Bloodsworth has since campaigned against capital punishment and is now head of advocacy for Witness to Innocence, a coalition of exonerated death-row inmates who campaign against capital punishment.

Bloodsworth’s most recent success was his leading role in the movement to end the death penalty in Maryland, the state that once tried to kill him. Governor Martin O’Malley signed the law abolishing that state’s death penalty on May 2 this year.

Bloodsworth’s ordeal began in 1984 when a neighbour saw on TV a sketch of the suspect in the particularly savage rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl near Baltimore. The neighbour thought it looked like Bloodsworth and called the police.

An eyewitness later incorrectly placed him with the victim. Despite his clean criminal record he was soon convicted and sentenced to death.

”I was accused of the most brutal murder in Maryland history,” Bloodsworth, now 52, told an audience during the Maryland campaign this year. ”It took the jury 2½ hours to send me to the gas chamber.”

While on death row he read about a conviction secured by the use of DNA, a science the public had barely heard of in the early 1990s, and with the help of his lawyers and supporters he had his case thrown out. DNA later proved the guilty man was Kimberly Shay Ruffner.

After Bloodsworth’s success, capital cases across the nation began collapsing on DNA evidence, and soon state governors – even those with no philosophical or moral quarrel with capital punishment – began suspending or abolishing the death penalty on the grounds it could not be applied safely.

Now 18 states have abandoned the practice, six in the past five years. Other states, such as California and North Carolina, have unofficial moratoriums in place.

This trend makes last month’s decision by Florida Governor Rick Scott to sign into law a bill increasing the speed at which the state executes its death-row prisoners all the more confounding to campaigners.

Compounding the issue is that Florida has the worst record of overturned capital convictions in the nation. The so-called Timely Justice Act, the only law of its kind in the nation, imposes a deadline of 30 days for the governor to set a date for execution once courts have ruled all avenues of appeal are exhausted.

Once that is done the prison warden has 180 days to carry out the execution.

It is not as though Florida’s Governor needs legislative impetus to sign death warrants. Scott, a Tea Party champion, has done so 11 times since he won office in January 2011.

At present there are 405 people on death row in Florida, which has conducted 77 executions since the death penalty’s reintroduction in 1979.

Since then Florida has exonerated 24 death row prisoners, or, as Slate杭州夜生活m noted, for every three inmates it puts to death it is forced to exonerate one.

One of those men is Juan Melendez, who also now campaigns against the death penalty, and who seems remarkably free of bitterness for the ordeal he went through.

Listening to his story, it almost seems as though the state took his life from him at random.

The Puerto Rican-born fruit picker was convicted of murdering a beauty school owner in 1983 largely on the evidence of two suspect witnesses, one of whom was a paid informant who negotiated a deal in exchange for his testimony.

Melendez was on death row for 16 years before a defence lawyer found transcripts – not presented to the jury – of another man, Vernon James, confessing to the crime.

Other defence lawyers soon found another 20 witnesses who heard James, who has since died, either discussing or confessing to the crime, reported The Florida Bar News in 2009.

In December 2001, an appeals court judge granted a new trial and criticised the prosecutor for withholding evidence from the defence and jury about James’ incriminating statements.

Were the Timely Justice Act in place earlier, ”I would be dead today,” Melendez says.

About three years ago, Melendez was attending an anti-capital punishment conference in Pennsylvania when he locked eyes with the man who was to have executed him, Ron McAndrew, the former warden of Florida State Prison.

McAndrew didn’t recognise him at first. Melendez was older and had more facial hair. And besides, last time McAndrew saw him they spoke through death-row bars.

Then it clicked.

”I went over and he turned and he grabbed me and he hugged me and we both started crying,” McAndrew says.

”Just imagine if I had taken him down to that dirty little room and killed him. I could not live with that.”

McAndrew is not your normal opponent of capital punishment.

He registered for the Republican Party the day he came of age and still believes in small governments and big defence forces.

Before moving into the prison system he worked as a criminal investigator. His change of heart was gradual.

During his years running prisons McAndrew was personally responsible for the execution of eight men, three in Florida and five in Texas.

Today he cannot say with any certainty that all the men he executed were guilty. There would have been a ninth too, had he not quit his post. McAndrew says he read that case file and knew the man was the victim of a bad investigation.

McAndrew speaks about the death penalty, particularly Florida’s death penalty, with a resonant fury.

”[Convictions] have absolutely nothing to do with justice; it is about who is the better actor in court,” he says. ”You have a public prosecutor with 25 years’ experience and perhaps a dozen capital trials under his belt going up against a 24-year-old straight out of law school.”

In his experience, the prosecution normally has 10 times the defence’s budget, and the defendants are normally ill-educated, impoverished, homeless or mentally ill.

Floridian juries can recommend the death penalty with a 5-4 split decision, whereas in all other states a unanimous decision is required, except in Alabama where 10 jurors must agree.

The American Bar Association, the Florida Supreme Court and the Florida Bar have all called for reforms in the state. All have been ignored.

Even on dry economic grounds, capital punishment fails, McAndrew argues, as it costs millions more to run the strings of appeals death sentences necessitate than the $25,000 per inmate it costs each year to imprison those convicted of capital crimes.

”Who would spend this money? Who would do that? Politicians, and even then only because it is not their money,” McAndrew says, his anger audibly mounting.

”You know how a governor orders an execution? He scrawls his fancy signature on a death warrant and Fed Exes it down to [the prison at] Raiford.

”Then on the day of the execution he leans back in his big chair and he puts his feet up on his big fancy desk and he listens to it on a speaker phone while the warden talks him through it.

”And when it’s done, the governor lets his feet hit the floor and he pounds his hand on his little chest and he tells himself he just got 64 per cent of the vote.”

McAndrew claims pressure to speed up an execution is noticeably greater at politically opportune moments, such as when a governor or a state’s attorney is facing re-election, when there has been a particularly high-profile crime or when crime statistics creep up.

”It is all about can I legally get a body on a gurney at the right time.”

Governor Rick Scott is already fully engaged in the phoney war preceding his 2014 re-election bid, and recent polls have given him cause for confidence and concern. His job approval and favourability ratings are at their highest since he took office. On the other hand the presumed Democratic candidate, Charlie Crist, a one-time Republican who famously swapped teams, has a 10-point popularity lead.

Naturally state politicians who backed the Timely Justice Act deny they were politically motivated.

Rob Bradley, a state senator who backed the bill, told Slate: ”Everybody realises right now, that when a person is sentenced to death, it’s going to be 10, 20, 30, 40 years before they are executed. And so that erodes the public’s confidence, and it leaves the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the system is broken.”

The politics of the death penalty in America can cut both ways. Maryland’s Martin O’Malley is widely thought to be considering a run for the presidency in 2016, and repealing his state’s death penalty would most likely benefit his primary campaign.

McAndrew campaigns against the death penalty in part to ”reach for whatever atonement I can”.

But some nights, he says, the eight dead men ”still come in and sit on my bed”.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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