Report on wrongly imprisoned Jerseyans fuels death-penalty debate
By ANGELA DELLI SANTI ;The Associated Press
July 19, 2006
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — On the day a state death penalty study panel considered the risks of executing innocent people, opponents of capital punishment released a report documenting the cases of 25 New Jerseyans who spent time in prison for serious crimes they did not commit.
The report, "Innocence Lost in New Jersey," could fuel already-impassioned arguments against execution. New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which sponsored the report, is among the groups arguing that the risks of putting innocent people to death are too great to continue to impose the death sentence.
"There are 25 cases described in the report, but those cases are illustrative only," said its author, Sandra K. Manning. "There is simply no way to know the exact number of individuals who are actually innocent. What binds these stories together is that in each and every case the state was absolutely certain of the defendant's guilt, and in each and every case, the state was absolutely wrong."
New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982, though it hasn't executed anyone since 1963.
A special commission studying capital punishment took testimony Wednesday from criminal justice experts and wrongly convicted former prisoners. The panel has until Nov. 15 to submit its recommendations to Gov. Jon S. Corzine and the Legislature on whether New Jersey's capital punishment law needs to be revised or done away with.
The state has 10 men on death row, but the legislation that created the commission imposed a moratorium on executions until after the panel completes its work.
No execution was imminent when the moratorium was imposed.
On Wednesday, Barry Scheck, a defense lawyer in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and founder of The Innocence Project, a legal clinic that promotes post-conviction DNA testing, promoted New Jersey's anti-death penalty advocacy.
"The risk of executing an innocent is something that — in light of recent DNA exonerations across the country, recent press reports of individuals who were executed who may well be innocent — this is a risk that no sensible person can minimize or overlook," Scheck said.
Scheck said 181 convicts have been released from prisons across the country after DNA testing proved their innocence. Fourteen of those cases involved people on death row and seven had pleaded guilty to the capital crimes they later were cleared of.
"The one thing that these DNA cases teach us is that we have to be humble and appreciate what we don't know about the system — there are so many unknowable sources of error," Scheck said. "So the risk of convicting the innocents is great."
Death penalty opponents also pointed to the high cost of capital cases.
New Jersey spends $11 million a year on capital cases over the regular costs of imprisonment, said Celeste Fitzgerald, of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
But, it was the impassioned stories of wrongly convicted former prisoners that may have the most lasting impact on the panel.
Larry Peterson, 55, who spent 18 years in prison following a 1989 murder conviction before DNA evidence freed him last year, said being imprisoned robbed him of his family, friends and career.
"I have one message to share with the state commission today," said Peterson, "and that message is this: DNA evidence allowed me to finally walk out of prison a free man. As long as the death penalty exists in New Jersey, the next innocent person may not."
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