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16 Jun

Opinion When We Kill

Opinion When We Kill

The McGlynn: Highly recommended read

Everything you think you know about the death penalty is wrong.

Nicholas Kristof

By Nicholas Kristof

Opinion Columnist

“I hereby sentence you to death.”

The words of Judge Clifford B. Shepard filled the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27, 1976. Shepard was sentencing Clifford Williams Jr., whom a jury had just found guilty of entering a woman’s house with a spare key entrusted to him and then shooting her dead from the foot of her bed.

It was a bizarre verdict, for forensics showed that the shots had been fired from outside the house — through the window, breaking the glass and piercing curtains and a screen. Moreover, at the time of the shooting Williams had been attending a birthday party, an alibi confirmed by many in attendance.

That didn’t matter, for Williams was an indigent black man with a public defender who didn’t call a single witness. The jury didn’t realize that he had an alibi or that the bullets had come from outside the house.

Judge Shepard, who was sometimes mocked in the legal community for harsh rulings and a weak intellect, ordered that “you be put to death in the electric chair by having electrical current passed through your body in such amount and frequency until you are rendered dead.”

The sentence came just three months after the Supreme Court had restored the death penalty in the United States, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, saying that new safeguards meant that capital punishment would be applied only to the worst of the worst. “No longer can a jury wantonly and freakishly impose the death sentence,” Justice Potter Stewart declared in the majority opinion.

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Hubert Nathan Myers, left, hugging his uncle, Clifford Williams Jr., during a news conference after their 1976 murder convictions were overturned In March.CreditWill Dickey/The Florida Times-Union, via Associated Press

Fast forward four decades. Williams, now 76, was freed in March along with his co-defendant and nephew, Hubert Nathan Myers; as they emerged from prison, two frail and elderly men, Myers knelt and kissed the ground. They had each spent 42 years in prison for a murder they did not commit — spanning the entire period of the modern death penalty and its supposed safeguards.

Williams survived because the Florida Supreme Court had overturned his death sentence by a single vote, in a 4-to-3 decision, back in 1980, effectively giving him life in prison instead. Then in 2016 Jacksonville elected a reformist prosecutor who reviewed this old case and concluded, “There is no credible evidence of guilt, and likewise there is substantial credible evidence to find these men are innocent.” A judge, noting that she had been only 3 years old at the time of the convictions, finally released the men from a justice system that had treated them wantonly and freakishly.

Support for the Death Penalty

Percentage of Americans responding to this question: “Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?”

President Trump is now calling for expanding the death penalty so it would apply to drug dealers and those who kill police officers, with an expedited trial and quick execution. A majority of Americans (56 percent, according to Gallup) favor capital punishment, believing that it will deter offenders or save money and presuming that it will apply only to the vilest criminals and that mistakes are not a serious risk.

All these assumptions are wrong.

My interest in the death penalty arises partly from a mistake of my own. At the beginning of 2000, I spoke to Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, who told me about a white man on death row in Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham, whom he believed to be innocent. I discussed with editors the possibility of doing a deep dive into the case but let myself be lured away by the sirens of that year’s Iowa caucuses instead. I never wrote about Willingham, and he was executed in 2004.

Subsequent evidence strongly suggests that not only was Willingham innocent but that no crime was even committed. He had been convicted of splashing gasoline around his house and then setting it on fire to murder his three little children. But experts later showed that there was no gasoline and that the fire was simply an accident that probably started with faulty wiring.

Imagine what it would be like to lose the people you loved most, then be convicted of murdering them and finally be strapped to a gurney and executed by lethal injection. A powerful new movie, “Trial by Fire,” with Laura Dern, tells the story of the Willingham case, and I hope it will prick the national conscience.

A photo of Cameron Todd Willingham when he was on death row.CreditMichael Stravato

Partly because I failed to investigate Willingham’s story, I have thrown myself into the case of Kevin Cooper, a black man on death row in California whose case reeks of prosecutorial misconduct. Cooper was convicted of the 1983 home invasion and murder of four white people in Chino Hills, Calif. After an extensive investigation, I argued last year that the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department may have framed Cooper.

Nicholas Kristof on Kevin Cooper.

One Test Could Exonerate Him. Why Won’t California Do It?

Republican and Democratic politicians alike — including the state’s former attorney general Kamala Harris, now running for president — refused for years to allow advanced DNA testing in Cooper’s case, even though his lawyers would have paid for it. (Harris has apologized and says she now favors testing.) This summer crucial evidence from Cooper’s case is finally being subjected to that testing, 36 years after the murders. We may know the results by September.

DNA testing accounts for many of the 165 exonerations and prison releases because of dubious evidence since 1973, by the count of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Usually, though, there isn’t DNA available that can be tested to determine guilt or innocence. As in the Clifford Williams case, it’s more murky. The crucial evidence in his conviction came from an eyewitness who may have been a pathological liar.

But let’s be clear: The great majority of people executed are guilty. They have frequently killed with the utmost savagery.

Scotty Morrow, a black man from Georgia, indisputably committed a brutal murder in 1994. He fought with his ex-girlfriend, Barbara Ann Young, and, as her 5-year-old son watched, shot her in the head and killed her.

Morrow also shot dead another woman in the house, Tonya Woods, and shot a third woman, LaToya Horne, in the face. Horne was able to stagger down the road before collapsing. She suffered permanent injuries.

Not surprisingly, Morrow was sentenced to die — but let me throw in a bit of complexity.

Morrow grew up in a violent home where he was raped and beaten as a child, and he never received mental health support to deal with his trauma; that justifies nothing but may help explain something. He desperately wanted to reconcile with Young, and when told that she had been exploiting him for money while she waited for her “real man” to return from prison, he “just snapped,” as he put it. After the murders, he prepared to commit suicide but was arrested; he then prayed daily for 25 years for the families of the women he had killed.

An undated booking photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows Scotty Morrow, a death row inmate.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Rarely in my career as a prosecutor and a judge did I witness this level of remorse and acceptance of responsibility,” reflected Judge Wendy Shoob, one of the judges who dealt with Morrow’s appeals over two decades. The only disciplinary report against him in a quarter-century in prison was for intervening in a fight to protect an inmate who was being stabbed with a shank. Several correctional officers wrote letters appealing that his life be spared.

“Scotty Morrow is literally the only inmate I would do this for,” said a correctional officer with 16 years in law enforcement, Nathan Adkerson. Sgt. Tajuana Burns described him as “just a really nice man.” Lindsey Veal Jr., a mental health counselor, said Morrow “actually makes the prison safer,” and added: “There are very few inmates I can call fully rehabilitated. But, without question, Scotty is one of them.”

William L. Buchanan, a psychologist who worked with Morrow, recalled that one correctional officer “looked me straight in the eyes and stated to me, ‘This is the best man in the world.’”

Yet in the end the State of Georgia did with meticulous planning what Morrow had done impulsively in a spasm of fury. It executed him last month by lethal injection. In his last moments in the execution chamber, Morrow apologized again to the families of the women he had killed, adding to the 20 witnesses: “I’m truly sorry for all that happened. I hope that you all recover and have healing.”

Was the man strapped down on a gurney truly the same person as the enraged brute who had shot dead Young and Woods 25 years earlier?

The death penalty has been applied to at least 222 crimes in the Anglo-American legal system, including marrying a Jew and stealing a rabbit. For a time in America, stealing grapes was punishable by death. So was witchcraft, as we know from the Salem trials.

For centuries executions were public affairs. The last public execution in the United States was in August 1936 in Owensboro, Ky. Perhaps 20,000 people gathered to see a black man, Rainey Bethea, 22, hanged for the rape and murder of a white woman. The carnival atmosphere and “hanging parties” led Kentucky to ban public executions, although public lynchings continued.

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