Several weeks ago in Massachusetts, acting Governor Jane Swift approved a bill that exonerates the accused witches hung in 1692 and 1693 during the Salem Witch Trials. The women were the last of the 20 victims to be cleared by the legislature since their executions more than three centuries ago. Although the descendants of the victims are elated, the decision comes a little too late for the twenty-four men and women who were hanged, crushed to death or died in prison during the witch-hunt.
All 20 of the guilty verdicts were based on the testimony of four young girls who decided to wreak havoc on the community
What have we learned about rushing to judgment and imposing the death penalty over these last 300-years? Not as much as we might hope.
According to Rob Warden, Executive Director for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, there are at least 46 Innocent Americans currently on death row. Mr. Warden’s studies reveal that erroneous eyewitness testimony–whether offered in good faith or perjured -is no doubt the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S. criminal justice system.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions identified and analyzed 70 cases involving 86 people (84 men and two women) who had been sentenced to death but legally exonerated based on strong claims of actual innocence.
The analysis revealed that of the 86 legally exonerated persons, eyewitness testimony played a role in the convictions of 46 (53.5%). And eyewitness testimony was the only evidence against 33 defendants (38.4%).
Another prevailing factor in wrongful convictions is incompetent defense counsel and prosecutorial misconduct–which often seems to go unnoticed. Unfortunately, there are countless death penalty cases that sound more like exaggerated TV movies of the week than actual encounters with the American justice system.
These horrendous stories include intoxicated defense attorneys in the courtroom who are jailed for the night to ‘dry out’ before giving closing arguments. A husband and wife defense team in which neither one had tried a death penalty case before. And in Texas, a defense lawyer literally slept through most of the trial and had to be awakened when it was his turn to present evidence.
Is it the reverence we feel for our capital courts which allows these cases to remain cloistered in anonymity and thus continue? Perhaps if we met some of the victims of our court room dramas we would hold the justice system more accountable.
Meet Abu-Ali Abdhur’Rahman. He is 50 year old African-American Muslim Cherokee. And he is a death row statistic.
Ali’s conviction was based solely on the statement of one witness, Duvalle Miller–who in fact exchanged his own 1st degree murder charge for his testimony. This particular eyewitness was a co-worker of Abu-Ali’s who mysteriously disappeared for an entire year two days after the crime. Only when he was captured and questioned did Mr. Miller offer his “eye witness” account which identified Abu- Ali as the murderer. Unlike Miller, Abu-Ali went to work as usual the morning after the crime.
Abu-Ali was subjected to a revolving door of incompetent defense lawyers who for various reasons were unable to give him adequate representation. One in particular later admitted to having never prepared for his case and called no witnesses on his behalf at the trial. It was also the egregious misconduct on the part of the prosecution that played a significant role in Abu Ali’s death sentence.
Due to torturous physical and sexual abuse throughout childhood and adolescence, Abu-Ali had been diagnosed with debilitating mental illnesses that were left untreated for most of his life. These conditions cause him to black out in times of extreme stress. Hence, Ali does not remember exactly what happened that night. It was only through hypnosis that he was able to disclose the events of that evening and the identity of the real murderer–Duvalle Miller.
Abu-Ali’s defense attorneys failed to learn about his mental disorder, and although the prosecuting attorney did have prior knowledge of his condition, this information was never presented at trial.
Also not presented to the jury was crucial blood evidence proving that Abu-Ali did not commit the murder. Again the defense attorneys were asleep on the bench while the prosecutor–who knew about the lack of blood evidence–witheld the information from both defense counsel and the jury.
This would explain why eight of the jurors have recently signed affidavits expressing outrage at the failure of Abu-Ali’s defense attorneys to present the crucial evidence. Several of the jurors stated if they had known the facts they would never have voted for the death penalty. The state requires a unanimous vote to obtain a death sentence. If the facts of this case were presented Abu-Ali would not be sitting on death row.
In 1998 when Tennessee Federal District Court Judge Todd Campbell finally heard all the evidence in Abu-Ali’s case, he concluded that the ineptitude of the defense council alone justified overturning the death penalty sentence. The Sixth Circuit Court reversed that decision.
In spite of Judge Campbell’s decision and all of the evidence, last month the U.S. Supreme Court denied Abu-Ali’s appeal–which means they will not review the case.
This is a severe blow in a long line of punches endured by Abu-Ali throughout his life. As a toddler he was often beaten until his screams were kicked out of him. Until last month, Abu-Ali held out hope that finally the Supreme Court would hear his cry for justice. It didn’t happen.
Death row inmates are invisible and silent unless we are determined and committed to seeing and hearing them.
As unbelievable as this gross negligence may seem, Abu-Ali’s case in not that unusual.
You don’t have to march in protests to be a promoter of justice. Wearing a button with the name of a death row inmate who has been unjustly sentenced can be a powerful act. Writing a letter to a state representative or to the editor of the local paper can be immensely valuable.
The average (mean) time between the arrest of the defendant and his or her exoneration in the eyewitness cases is just short of 12 years.
Let’s remember all of the men and women who were wrongly executed by so-called righteous, law-abiding citizens in Salem Massachusetts. And then let us try to imagine what 12 unjust years of a death sentence does to the human spirit.
To receive a “don’t Kill Abu-Ali” button or to learn more about Abu-Ali and how you can help, visit: website: http://www.abu-ali.org, or write Abu-Ali Fund, PO Box 121754, Nashville TN 37212
Molly Secours is a writer, videographer and racial dialog facilitator in Nashville TN. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org