The End of Innocence
New York Times By DAVID R. DOW, OpEd Contributor
June 16, 2006
EARLIER this week, the Supreme Court decided, in a 5-to-3 opinion, that a Tennessee prison inmate named Paul G. House was entitled to prove he did not commit the crime for which he was sent to death row. On the same day, I received a letter from Centurion Ministries, which argued for more than a decade that a Virginia man named Roger K. Coleman had not committed the crime for which he was executed in 1992. The letter admitted that Centurion had been wrong.
These cases have something in common: they pivot on the question of innocence. For too many years now, though, death penalty opponents have seized on the nightmare of executing an innocent man as a tactic to erode support for capital punishment in America.
Innocence is a distraction. Most people on death row are like Roger Coleman, not Paul House, which is to say that most people on death row did what the state said they did. But that does not mean they should be executed.
Focusing on innocence forces abolitionists into silence when a cause célèbre turns out to be guilty. When the DNA testing ordered by Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia proved that Mr. Coleman was a murderer, and a good liar besides, abolitionists wrung their hands about how to respond. They seemed sorry that he had been guilty after all.
I, too, am a death penalty opponent, but I was happy to learn that Mr. Coleman was a murderer. I was happy that the prosecutors would not have to live with the guilt of knowing that they sent an innocent man to death row.
The day before the DNA results were reported in the Coleman case last January, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Paul House case. In Mr. House's case, the DNA testing has already been done, and it tends to suggest that he is indeed innocent. During oral arguments, however, Justice Antonin Scalia (who was one of the three dissenters when the court decided the case this week) argued that disputes over factual findings in a case can't be endlessly rehashed.
He is certainly right about that. As Justice Scalia has said elsewhere, of course we are going to execute innocent people if we have the death penalty. The criminal justice system is made up of human beings, and fallible beings make mistakes.
But perhaps that is a price society is willing to pay. If the death penalty is worth having, it might still be worth having, despite the occasional loss of innocent life. Paul House might be innocent, but how long will we keep death row inmates alive, waiting to find out?
In Mr. Coleman's case, the Virginia Supreme Court did not address the arguments that he had raised in his appeal, because his lawyer had filed the papers one day late. When the case got to the United States Supreme Court, the court, in an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, began its analysis by saying, "This is a case about federalism."
The case did have something to do with the relationship between the Supreme Court and Virginia's highest court. But is that what the case was really about? Mr. Coleman was saying that his trial lawyer had been incompetent, and that the Virginia courts were refusing to address the question of whether his trial lawyer had been incompetent because his appellate lawyer had filed the appeal a day late.
Federalism might be a plot line in this story, but it hardly seems to be the major issue. When the Supreme Court brushed aside Mr. Coleman's appeal 15 years ago, the justices said that a death row inmate cannot complain when his lawyer misses a filing deadline, because the lawyer is the agent of the client, and clients are responsible for the failings of their agents.
As a result of this syllogism, my client Johnny Joe Martinez was executed in 2002, because his court-appointed appellate lawyer neglected to file a proper appeal — a mistake he freely admitted to, attributing it to inexperience. When the Martinez case reached the federal courts, those courts, invoking the Coleman decision, said too bad for Mr. Martinez; the mistake of his lawyer was attributable to him. I could go on with other examples.
Of the 50 or so death row inmates I have represented, I have serious doubts about the guilt of three or four — that is, 6 to 8 percent, about what scholars estimate to be the percentage of innocent people on death row.
In 98 percent of the cases, however, in 49 out of 50, there were appalling violations of legal principles: prosecutors struck jurors based on their race; the police hid or manufactured evidence; prosecutors reached secret deals with jailhouse snitches; lab analysts misrepresented forensic results. Most of the cases do not involve bogus claims of innocence, like the one that swirled for 15 years around Roger Coleman, but the government corruption that the federal courts overlook so that the states can go about their business of executing.
The House case will make it hard for abolitionists to shift their focus from the question of innocence, but that is what they ought to do. They ought to focus on the far more pervasive problem: that the machinery of death in America is lawless, and in carrying out death sentences, we violate our legal principles nearly all of the time.
David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston, is the author of "Executed on a Technicality: Lethal Injustice on America's Death Row."