Friday, March 12, 2010

In Search of the 54

I recently made the outrageous claim that Texas has executed 54 innocent people since 1976, give or take some statistical variation.  I calculated that number using ratios of people exonerated from death row to people executed. That ratio for Texas was a paltry 2.4% compared to 14.1% for the rest of the nation. Assuming Texas juries were no more wise or foolish than the rest of the county, that discrepancy suggests that Texas has executed 54 innocent people, give or take.

I've decided to find the 54.

That sentence was surprisingly easy to write. It's going to be hard as hell to accomplish. I start with an unfortunately large list of 450 people executed. If I were able to round up and evaluate the information on one person per day, it would take me a year and a half. But it will take many, many days per person.

I recognize also, that I will never be able to "prove" any of them to be innocent. I will have to establish some criteria by which I include or exclude people from the list. I will have to be satisfied to allow the list to grow slowly, since I begin with no time to spare for this massive effort. I'll probably have to recruit help. I'll have to be clever.

As I said, it won't be easy. Nonetheless, I've decided to find the 54. I'll keep you posted.

Part II is here.

Part III is here.

Former Texas DA Wants DNA Tested Before Execution

Sam Millsap once was the District Attorney for Bexar County, Texas. Bexar County, for reference, includes the city of San Antonio.  In the March 9, 2010 edition of the Houston Chronicle, Millsap makes his case that the DNA evidence in the Hank Skinner case should be tested prior to Skinner's execution.

We have been trying to make that case for quite a while now. Millsap's experience, however, gives him a unique perspective on the execution of persons possibly innocent. Consider this segment from the article.

Several years ago, this newspaper argued persuasively that Ruben Cantu, a defendant I prosecuted who was put to death in 1993, may well have been innocent. Twenty years after Cantu's trial, my star witness recanted his trial testimony. Many people consider his recantation credible because he had nothing to gain by reversing his position except a whole lot of trouble.

That case brought home to me, in a way that nothing else could have, that the system we trust to determine who may live and who must die simply doesn't work in all cases. Other investigative stories have revealed that Texans Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in 1989, and Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004, were almost certainly innocent.

Now if we can get a few innocence projects to join the call, maybe many will follow. And maybe then Governor Perry will see the wisdom in testing the DNA before executing Hank Skinner.