Forgotten for Life

by Bill Lueders

Excerpted from a letter to The Nation

         Robert Sherrill's superb article raises the distressing possibility that being sentenced to death may the best thing that can happen to someone who is wrongfully convicted.

        According to one study cited by Sherrill, 2,370 death sentences--seven out of ten imposed between 1973 and 1995--were thrown out on appeal because of serious flaws. He also reports that defendants sentenced to death are four times as likely to get new trials, lower sentences or clemency as to be put to death.

        My sense is that the system is not nearly so concerned about correcting errors when the stakes are not so high, and when the prospect of putting an innocent person to death does not add urgency to the situation. Worse, I doubt this means that the judges in these other cases are fairer, the prosecutors more scrupulous and the police less likely to bend the truth.  It's just that fewer people--including the lawyers, journalists and citizens who have helped spring many an inmate from Death Row--are paying attention.

        In my community, a woman named Penny Brummer was in 1994 convicted of murder based entirely on  circumstantial and conflicting evidence.  Prosecutors milked the jury's anti-gay bias (Brummer is a lesbian and the victim was her ex-lover's friend) and produced a surprise witness who claimed he heard Brummer making death threats in a bar. Brummer's attorney failed to impress on the jury how significant it was that these threats were allegedly made two weeks after the murder. The witness later told me--I'm a newspaper reporter--that he's positive he's not mistaken since the woman in the bar identified herself as Penny, something it never occurred to him to mention during the trial. (For more, see

        Brummer, now 31, lost her appeals. The next scheduled event is when she first becomes eligible for parole--at age 75.

        None of this should suggest that the death penalty is a good thing; there is nothing redeeming about it. But clearly, the sloppiness that characterizes capital cases extends to other prosecutions as well. It's not just the death penalty that's in need of rethinking; it's our whole justice system.

Bill Lueders

Death Penalty Issues
Truth in Justice