Capital punishment: 2019 was nearly 'the year of executing the innocent'
This year came close to being the year of executions of innocent men, according to a non-partisan assessment of the death penalty in America.
The 2019 annual report of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) paints a picture of US capital punishment withering on the vine yet continuing to display shocking flaws and injustices. In total, 22 prisoners were killed by just seven states this year – a dramatic decline from the peak of 98 executions in 1999 and the lowest number since 20 were put to death three years ago.
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But behind that falling headline figure, the DPIC’s report highlights a judicial system in death penalty states riddled with basic failings. As the center’s executive director, Robert Dunham, put it: “2019 came close to being the year of executing the innocent.”
In an excoriating roundup of the year, Dunham said: “Our courts and public officials too frequently flat out ignore potentially deadly mistakes, and often take steps to obstruct the truth.”
Two men were judicially killed this year in cases that raised profound questions about the reliability of their convictions. In August Texas executed Larry Swearingen, 48, who had always claimed he was innocent of the murderer of Melissa Trotter in 1998.
Substantial inconsistencies in the evidence were highlighted by Swearingen’s lawyers over many years, including DNA material gathered from the victim’s fingernails that did not match the prisoner’s. Prosecutors relied on circumstantial evidence.
Shortly before his death Swearingen told the Washington Post: “Today the state of Texas murdered an innocent man.”
In the second case of potential innocence, Alabama executed Domineque Ray in February. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1999 for raping and killing a teenaged girl, though the jury at his original trial was unable to reach a unanimous verdict having heard there was no physical evidence linking Ray to the murder.
In the course of the year two other prisoners, Clifford Williams in Florida and Charles Ray Finch in North Carolina, were exonerated and set free as innocent men having been put on death row in 1976. Between them they served 84 years in prison; their release brought the total number of former death-row prisoners who have been exonerated in modern America to 166.
It’s not just innocence – the purest critique of the death penalty – that is eating away at its judicial credibility. The DPIC report spotlights a litany of fault-lines within the practice of capital punishment in America, not least the prevalence of mental illness among the condemned.
In an especially extreme example, the report spotlights Tiffany Moss, the first person to be sentenced to death by the state of Georgia in five years. A woman with documented brain damage, she was nonetheless allowed by the court to represent herself in her capital trial – she presented no evidence in her own defense either to prevent her conviction or being condemned to death row.
With so many alarming elements still present in the contours of the death penalty, it is perhaps no surprise that public discomfort with the practice continues to grow. For the first time since it began asking the question in 1985, Gallup found this year that most Americans say they prefer life imprisonment with no possibility of parole to the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for murder.
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