Capital Punishment Condemns Hundreds of Innocent Prisoners to Death

The English language is full of euphemisms for those parts of life we consider to be ugly, distasteful, or painful.  One of our most heavily-sanitized euphemisms has to be capital punishment: a polite phrase for execution.  While the death penalty is a bottomless wellspring of ethical debate, even its most ardent proponents would admit that killing innocent people is a reprehensible act.  But sometimes, that is exactly what happens. Just how often are innocent individuals wrongfully put to death?  What is the future of capital punishment in Utah?

State Capitol Building, Utah

“There is Too Much at Stake to Accept an Imperfect System.”

When you think about it, much of our justice system is tied to recent technological innovations. There was no such thing as license suspension prior to the invention of the automobile.  Breathalyzers weren’t researched until the 1920s, and the first device wasn’t patented until the 1950s.  So-called “cyber crimes” are a brand-new product of the computer age, and the phrase “credit card fraud” would have drawn puzzled stares less than a century ago.

By comparison, mankind has been practicing capital punishment all around the globe for thousands of years.  Medieval criminals were frequently hanged, burned, or tortured, and the very first mention of the death sentence dates all the way back to the Code of King Hammurabi in the 18th century B.C.

But do deep roots mean a practice is warranted by tradition?  Or do those roots indicate that criminal executions are a product of a brutal and primitive stage in human history?

Since 1976, a total of 1,379 inmates have been put to death in the United States.  Texas holds the grim distinction of being the nation’s leader in capital punishment, with a staggering total of 515 executions.  (By comparison, runner-up Oklahoma has a total of “only” 111 deaths — one fifth as many as Texas.)

Utah, too, has contributed to this grisly toll: seven prisoners have been executed here since 1976.  The number pales in comparison to 515, but some would argue it’s still seven too many.

To date, a total of 18 states have abolished capital punishment, with recent additions including Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland.  Earlier this year, Governor Jay Inslee (D) announced plans to suspend the death penalty in Washington state, citing concerns over rampant misapplication.

Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility,” says Inslee.  “And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served.  The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.  […] There are too many flaws in the system.  And when the ultimate decision is death there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.”

Barbed wire around prison walls

Nearly 3,100 Inmates on Death Row in the United States, Including 9 in Utah

In Utah, seven inmates have already received the death sentence.  Another nine are sitting on death row — along with 3,079 other men and women throughout the country.

Depending on when they were sentenced, some of the nine waiting on Utah’s death row may have the option to select the now-unavailable method of death by firing squad, which was withdrawn in 2004.  Interestingly enough, the only other state to allow this Old-West-style form of execution is Oklahoma — surpassed only by Texas for use of capital punishment.  (In fact, Utah’s most recent execution — that of Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010 — was carried out by firing squad. In court, Gardner stated, “I would like the firing squad, please.”)

Wherever they live, most inmates will not be granted such a choice.  Most inmates with death sentences will be strapped to a table, and injected with a chemical cocktail of dubious efficacy.

If they are “lucky,” death will be quick and humane as intended.

If they are not, death may be slow and excruciating.  A miserably botched execution in Oklahoma made headlines just months ago, as convicted murderer, rapist, and kidnapper Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack, in visible pain, a full 43 minutes after receiving the initial injection.

Some readers will think this is unacceptable and callous cruelty, more in line with unchecked medieval sadism than with any modern system of criminal punishment. Other readers will think it is a fair price for the agony, terror, and eventual death of Stephanie Neiman, whom Lockett was convicted of shooting and burying alive.  It’s a divisive issue, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

But consider this disturbing question: what if it turned out, years later, that Lockett was an innocent man?

This is not to suggest that Lockett, specifically, was wrongfully convicted — but others have been. And they have paid the ultimate price for the shortcomings of what Governor Inslee denounces as an “imperfect system.”

Hand Of A Prisoner

Study Finds 4% of Death Row Inmates Are Innocent

Samuel Gross is a professor of law at the University of Michigan.  In a recent peer-reviewed study published in 2014 in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, Gross determined at least 4% of all inmates sitting on death row are innocent.

That means that among the 3,088 people sitting on death row as you read these words, 123 of them are statistically likely to be innocent.

Which 123 are they?  

Certainly, numerous people have been exonerated following their executions.  It’s some cold comfort to their legacies, but a pitiful “apology” for the permanence, finality, and devastation of death.  Executed prisoners since presumed innocent include Carlos DeLuna (Texas, 1989), Jesse Tafero (Florida, 1990), Johnny Garret (Texas, 1992), Leo Jones (Florida, 1998), and Cameron Willingham (Texas, 2004).  Researchers estimate some 340 innocent inmates have been wrongfully executed since 1973.

Even retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said, “More often than we want to recognize, some innocent defendants have been convicted and sentenced to death.”   Justice O’Connor has also stated, “If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.”

Six states have abolished capital punishment in the past six years alone.  While the option persists in Utah, statistical trends are tentatively pointing to a decline.

Aggravated murder is the only offense punishable by death in the state of Utah.  From 2008 through the summer of 2013, a total of 66 aggravated murder charges were filed — yet prosecutors sought the death penalty in only seven of those cases. Salt Lake County D.A. Sim Gill says, “Compared to all the murder cases filed during [a 25 year] time… less than one half of one percent of all the murder cases resulted in the death penalty.” 

Criminal justice professor L. Kay Gillespie believes the expenses associated with the often lengthy appeals process in capital cases may be the death of the death penalty in years to come. It just seems to me we’re at the point where we’re not going to be able to afford the death penalty much longer anyway with the expense involved,” Gillespie says.

If you have been charged with aggravated murder, it is absolutely critical that you speak with an experienced wrongful conviction lawyer as soon as you possibly can.  Call Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287, or contact our law offices online. Client consultations are always confidential, and your initial consultation is free of charge.