Sunday, June 23, 2013

The innocent men haunted by years on death row

He spent 16 years on death row in a US jail, narrowly escaping two dates set for execution. Now Anthony Graves is one of about 140 people who walked free after being cleared of any crime.

His case is a beacon for activists seeking to ban capital punishment, which was reinstated in the United States in 1976.

Since then more than 1,300 people have been executed, but 142 have been exonerated by the courts. Graves was number 138.

"How do you compensate a man you took so much from and that you can never replace," says Graves.

He was wrongly accused of murder and spent more than two years in prison as his case was tried, before then languishing for another 16 on death row.

"They took 18 years of my life, that they can never give me back. They still owe me my opportunity to raise my children, they stole my opportunity to make free choices," he said.

Since he walked out of the prison gates in October 2010, this father of three boys says he has learned to appreciate the small things in life. "What a blessing to open your eyes every morning, see the sun rise," he tells AFP.

He had been sentenced to die in 1994, accused of multiple murders.

He was convicted after being named as an accomplice by another suspect and because the prosecution maintained the crimes could not have been carried out by one person acting alone.

Six years later in 2000, the killer Robert Carter confessed just weeks before his own execution to having lied that Graves was his accomplice.

But despite the 11th-hour confession, Graves remained behind bars for another 10 years in the notorious jail in Livingston, Texas -- the state which on Wednesday is set to carry out its 500th execution since 1976.

"The worst place you could imagine, like a hell-to-be, 24/7, 18-and-a-half years, every day, you can feel chaos, sadness and grief, that's death row."

Three hundred people went to their deaths during his enforced sojourn.

"Texas executes a lot. I was there for 300 executions. I knew most of the guys. We became like family," he says.

Forensic science paved way for reforms

"After months of investigation and talking to every witness who's ever been involved in this case, and people who've never been talked to before, after looking under every rock we could find, we found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder," said special prosecutor Kelly Siegler.

Sixteen years after the trial, Siegler has finally concluded that Graves "is an innocent man."

Another 141 men, 71 of them African Americans, have been cleared of any crime in 26 US states, according to the non-profit organization the Death Penalty Information Center.

"If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed," said former Supreme Court judge Sandra Day O'Connor.

In fact, at least 10 people, including six in Texas, have been executed despite major doubts about their guilt, according to the center.

"There is no way to tell how many of the over 1,000 people executed since 1976 may also have been innocent," it says.

"Courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence when the defendant is dead. Defense attorneys move on to other cases where clients' lives can still be saved."

The center points to some possible examples -- Carlos DeLuna, executed in 1989 despite a mountain of evidence that he was not the killer and the repeated confessions of another man; Cameron Willingham, put to death in 2004 for killing his three children in a fire even after an inquiry carried out after his execution ruled that the blaze was not a result of arson; Troy Davis, executed in 2011 even though seven out of nine witnesses recanted their statements.

The fear of executing innocent men and women has always been at the core of the passionate arguments by those against capital punishment.

"The steady evolution of this issue since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 has been accelerated in recent years by the development of DNA technology, the new gold standard of forensic investigation," said the center's director Richard Dieter.

"This science, along with a vigorous re-investigation of many cases, has led to the discovery of a growing number of tragic mistakes and freed inmates."

This helped prompt many reforms, says Steve Hall from the Texas advocacy group StandDown. He points to such things as the opening of an office of convictions integrity, and post-conviction access to DNA testing.

"We've seen too many examples where the system got it wrong. With the death penalty, once you execute, you can't correct," he said.

Source: AFP, June 23, 2013