Thursday, December 29, 2005 Page A22
Taking Innocent Life
EARLIER THIS month, the state of North Carolina executed
Kenneth Boyd -- who became the 1,000th person put to death in the United States since the Supreme Court permitted executions to resume in 1976. The 1,001st, Shawn Paul Humphries, was put to death in South Carolina hours later. The 1,002nd, Wesley Baker, followed in Maryland the next week, the 1,003rd in California and the 1,004th in Mississippi. At this rate, the next thousand will not take anything like three decades.
And that, in all likelihood, means that an innocent person will be executed relatively quickly. While these five men were not innocent, it is exceedingly improbable that all of their fellow inmates were rightly convicted. The faster the death chambers do their work, the sooner an innocent person will be put to death.
The latest probably erroneous execution to come to light is that of Ruben Cantu, who was executed more than a decade ago in Texas for a brutal robbery-murder that took place in 1984, when he was 17. Recently, the Houston Chronicle published a remarkable series revealing that the lone eyewitness, who was shot multiple times during
the incident but who survived to testify against Mr. Cantu, has recanted. The evidence against Mr. Cantu was limited to the testimony of this man, Juan Moreno. Likewise, Mr. Cantu's co-defendant now says that he and another teenager committed the robbery.
David Garza, who served a sentence for his role, now says that "Ruben Cantu had nothing to do with the murder. . . . I should know."
This isn't the first time serious questions of innocence have arisen after an execution. Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was also executed in Texas. The case against him for burning down his home and thereby killing his children was, the paper reported, "based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances." More recently, prosecutors in St. Louis reopened the case of Larry Griffin, whom the state of Missouri executed in 1995; they are no longer convinced that the state convicted the right person.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) reportedly may order the retesting of
physical evidence in the case of Roger Keith Coleman, who went to his death in 1992 proclaiming that "an innocent man is going to be murdered tonight."
It is certainly possible, in any of these cases, that the evidence of
innocence is chimerical and that the conviction was correct. But in the long run a society that insists upon an irrevocable punishment guarantees injustice.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
What we're fighting for
The Washington Post on a consistent basis likes to remind its readers of its opposition to the death penalty. It was therefore gratifying, although hardly surprising, to see this editorial in today's paper. We reprint it in its entirety: