Opponents of execution seek example of misuse

Sunday, July 15, 2007

ST. LOUIS -- Death penalty opponents had pegged their hopes on a Missouri case as clear evidence that an innocent person was executed.

Such a case, they hoped, would finally turn public and political sentiment against executions.

But St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced Thursday that the right man, Larry Griffin, had been executed in the 1980 drive-by killing of Quintin Moss.

Joyce had reinvestigated the case after a 2005 report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund raised questions about Larry Griffin's guilt. Her decision leaves opponents still seeking the ultimate case.

"They are looking so desperately for that case," Joshua Marquis, a board member for the National District Attorneys Association, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I'm not so arrogant to believe there won't be a day when it will come. It's very unlikely, but not impossible."

A clear case of the execution of an innocent person in the recent past would refute U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's declaration last year that there has not been "a single case -- not one -- in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit."

University of Michigan law school professor Samuel R. Gross, who led the fund investigation in the Griffin case, thinks wrongful executions already have been proved.

"I think there are cases where it's clear-cut," he said, citing both Griffin's case and a case in Bexar County, Texas. But prosecutors and other death penalty supporters do not want to admit that innocents have been executed, he said.

The Death Penalty Information Center says 124 people have been exonerated from death row.

"Many of these exonerations came frighteningly close to their execution date," said Colleen Cunningham of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty. "Errors clearly abound in death penalty cases."

A poll this year shows that most Americans -- 87 percent -- believe that an innocent person already has been executed. But only 55 percent said it had affected their opinion about the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

"Some people still think executing an innocent person is collateral damage," said David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Elliot said he thinks the death penalty will be abolished only when the public decides it's not worth the trouble.

"People are going to have to see it collapse under its biases, blunders and bureaucracy," he said.

Some say public support for the death penalty already is eroding.

The Death Penalty Information Center says executions, death sentences in state courts and the death row population all dropped between 1999 and 2006.

Perceptions about the death penalty may be affected by unfair news coverage of new investigations into executions, said Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., who speaks across the country about the death penalty.

"In all fairness to reporters, it isn't news when the expected happens," Marquis said. "But it's intellectual dishonesty in the death penalty debate when they just fall off the radar."

Death penalty opponents say independent commissions, rather than prosecutors, should review cases like Griffin's.

"Here we have the prosecutors reviewing their own work," Gross said. "I can't imagine anything more self-serving."

But Joyce and other prosecutors say the cases already have been reviewed multiple times by the courts, and often reviewed again by the prosecutor's office when concerns are raised.

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