ATTORNEY AT LAW
TROUBLING DOUBTS ABOUT IMPENDING TEXAS, FLORIDA EXECUTIONS (10-15-19)
The State of Texas is scheduled to execute Rodney Reed on Nov. 20 for the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop. The only direct evidence of Reed’s guilt was his semen taken from the victim’s body. Reed, however, who is black, has insisted from the outset that he had been having a secret consensual sexual relationship with Stites, who was white. Witnesses, including the victim’s sister, have now come forward to corroborate that romantic relationship. Moreover, according to the Innocence Project, three forensic experts who testified at Reed’s trial have signed affidavits asserting that the original time of death is inaccurate. That, in turn, throws into serious doubt the timeline for Reed to have been the killer.
On Nov. 7, Florida is scheduled to execute James Dailey for the murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio near St. Petersburg in 1985. Dailey, an Air Force veteran who served three tours in Vietnam, was implicated by his co-defendant, Jack Pearcy, who is currently serving a life sentence. But according to Seth Miller, Director of the Innocence Project of Florida, Pearcy, who has a history of violence against women, subsequently said four separate times that he, alone, committed the murder and that Dailey is innocent.
“This case has red flags of innocence,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Tampa Bay Times. A total of 29 Florida inmates on death row have been exonerated, the highest number in the nation.
A strong moral argument can certainly be made against capital punishment. From a legal perspective, however, it is an historically valid, appropriate response to instances where a person willfully and with premeditation takes the life of another human being. To allow a cold-blooded murderer to live when his victim lives no more is a manifestly unjust result for a legal system whose business is justice. It would also be an implicit concession that the life of the victim wasn’t really all that valuable after all.
Deeply rooted in English common law, the death penalty was employed in the American colonies for a variety of crimes, some relatively minor by today’s standards. The adoption of the Eighth Amendment in 1791, with its prohibition against the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments”, didn’t change this, although executions came to take place most often in cases of murder and other especially serious felonies. It is against these realities that today’s constitutional challenges to the death penalty must be evaluated and rejected.
At the same time, the execution of an innocent person is not merely an unspeakable injustice but the ultimate failing of fallible minds. And yet it is virtually certain that innocent people have, indeed, been executed in this country, and not in insignificant numbers.
In support of this disconcerting proposition, consider that, according to statistics compiled by the Innocence project, 130 people convicted of murder were subsequently exonerated by DNA testing as of July 9, 2018. In 31 percent of those cases, the wrongful convictions had been procured through witness misidentification, and in 62 percent by false confessions. The lesson to be taken from this is crystal clear. No person should ever be executed where there is any doubt whatsoever about his or her guilt. Theoretically, the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof required to obtain any criminal conviction should be a guarantor against this. Obviously it isn’t. Either juries don’t understand it, or they don’t faithfully apply it.
Erroneous verdicts are often upheld on appeal because of the well-established practice of appellate courts to give great deference to the factual findings of juries. The theory behind this is that jurors, having had the opportunity to observe the witnesses at trial, are in the best position to evaluate their credibility. But in a capital case, where a defendant’s life is at stake, appellate courts should be given the power to set aside a death sentence where there is a scintilla of doubt about the defendant’s guilt. At the very least, Rodney Reed and James Dailey fall into this category.
Carrying out their executions will provide death penalty opponents with yet more ammunition in their fight to have capital punishment finally and permanently outlawed in the United States. If the criminal justice system won’t raise the bar to insure that such monstrous miscarriages of justice never ever happen, then maybe it is, indeed, time to stop executing anybody at all.
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Daniel Leddy's law column has been published by the Staten Island Advance for over 25 years, appearing every Tuesday on the editorial page. His most recent column appears below. An archive of his columns can be found here