Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Innocence Project

There was a story in the news this past week that got surprisingly little coverage. It was the story of Jerry Miller who was put in jail 25 years ago convicted of a brutal rape in 1981. Last week, DNA testing proved that, without a doubt, Miller did not commit that crime. Imagine 25 years in prison for a crime that you did not commit. Miller’s case was also a milestone. This is not an isolated incident. Miller was the 200th person proven to be completely innocent by The Innocence Project since 1989.

This reality attacks one of the core lies told by people who support the death penalty: that there are enough safeties in place to assure that only the guilty receive this punishment. And yet, in the work that has been done by The Innocence Project, they have helped exonerate 200 people who have spent a combined 2,475 years in jail for crimes they did not commit. And begs the question of how many people have been executed who were also perhaps innocent? There’s no turning around a wrongful execution.

Another interesting statistic that this reveals comes in terms of where these exonerations have taken place. Most of these wrongful convictions happened in Texas (28), Illinois (27), New York (23). These are all states with the death penalty. Take Texas for example. Texas kills so many of its own residents that if it were an independent nation it would rank 5th in the world for executions. The traditional argument is that the death penalty is a deterrent to capital crimes. In other words, if you have the death penalty, people will not commit capital crimes. And yet, Texas has the greatest rate of capital crime in the country.

Here are some interesting statistics on these 200 wrongful convictions:
· Exonerations have been won in 31 states.
· 14 of the 200 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.
· The average length of time served by exonerees is 12 years. The total number of years: 2,475.
· The average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongfully convictions was 26.
· Of the 200 exonerees: (120 African Americans; 55 Caucasians; 19 Latinos, 1 Asian American; 5 other.
· The real suspects and/or perpetrators have been identified in 74 of the DNA exoneration cases.
· Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued—until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly accused.

What does this prove? I think it shows yet again that the decision of life or death belongs to God alone – we are simply not qualified. I think it also shows that as a society, we are willing to cling to lies to support a position of vengeance or convenience. No one is suggesting that criminals be let out on the street, but that sometimes there is a limit to what we as a society can do – protect itself by jailing people, but not to the point of taking life. It doesn’t matter if the life taken is through abortion, euthanasia, poverty, hunger or the death penalty; it is never ours to take.

Let us pray that we, as a society, embrace the culture of life.

Love, Fr. Tom

1 comment:

  1. I think it's also important to pray for the people and the families who are victims of miscarriages of justice even if they aren't on death row. Even though their lives aren't physically taken from them, they're still destroyed. Imagine the feelings of hopelessness and betrayal the convicted person and his or her family feels knowing that no one believes them. Imagine having done nothing wrong and yet being locked up like an animal, everything you've ever worked for taken away from you. Imagine the families. Few people realize how little help the government offers the innocent spouses and children of prisoners who most of the time have their primary bread winner taken away with almost no time to prepare. You could almost say these struggling families are being punished more than the prisoner, who's at least given a roof over his head and food for his stomach.

    Sorry that's a little off the whole "death penalty" topic, but I thought it important to point out as not too many people take all that into consideration or take the time to think about it (not accusing you of that, Fr. Tom. Just putting it out there for whoever's reading your most excellent blog.)