Death Penalty. Problems and Challenges

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In the summer of 1984, a young girl was kidnapped, raped, and murdered near her home in Baltimore County, Maryland. Twenty-three-year-old Kirk Bloodsworth was accused of the crime, and he was convicted and sentenced to death after a jury trial based largely on the eyewitness testimony of some boys playing near the murder site.

Three days after Bloodsworth’s conviction, police and prosecutors learned about David Rehill. Hours after the girl’s murder, Rehill had shown up at a mental health clinic with fresh scratches on his face and had mentioned to therapists that he was “in trouble with a little girl.” Rehill closely resembled Bloodsworth, who was already on death row. Six months passed before police decided to interview Rehill. Nevertheless, they did not place him in a lineup or doublecheck his alibi.

Due to a technical error in the trial, Bloodsworth was granted an appeal two years after his conviction. Even though prosecutors had known about Rehill for those two years, they withheld this information from the defense until two days before the second trial. Bloodsworth’s attorneys did not have enough time to investigate the new information and failed to ask for a trial postponement. The second jury never learned that there was another suspect, and they also convicted Bloodsworth of rape and murder. In 1993, however, DNA analysis of the victim’s clothing revealed that Bloodsworth could not have committed the crime, and he was exonerated. Trial observers and commentators were disquieted to learn that an innocent man had been sentenced to death.

Kirk Bloodsworth was not the first nor the last capital defendant to receive faulty legal representation, a death sentence, and eventual exoneration through postconviction evidence. In 1993, Gary Gauger was wrongfully convicted of murdering his parents on the basis of a coerced confession obtained by police after he was held for nearly twenty hours of questioning without food or access to an attorney. Gauger was acquitted only after a law professor took over the case and revealed solid information pointing to the real killers. In 2001, Earl Washington Jr. was released from prison after definitive DNA tests proved that he could not have committed the 1982 rape and murder that had led to his conviction and death sentence. An African American with an IQ indicating that he was retarded, Washington had allegedly “quickly” confessed to the crime even though he could not describe the victim or identify where or how he had killed her. Washington, Gauger, and Bloodsworth are among the more than ninety-five American death-row inmates who have been released from prison after charges against them were dropped due to wrongful convictions and overwhelming proof of innocence.

Americans’ support of capital punishment, many death penalty critics contend, has been largely based on the assumption that only people who are undeniably guilty of felony murder are executed. However, for various reasons, innocent people can end up on death row. Faulty eyewitness identifications, false testimony—often presented by “jailhouse snitches” seeking reduced sentences—police misconduct, mishandled evidence, false confessions, inept legal representation, and the personal prejudices of jurors can lead to wrongful convictions.

Contributing to the occurrence of wrongful convictions is the problem of systemic discrimination based on race, class, or social status, many analysts maintain. According to death penalty opponents, the wrongly convicted are often “outsiders”—racial minorities, nonconformists, the poor, the mentally ill, or the mildly retarded—who do not receive equitable treatment in the criminal justice system. The mentally incompetent and the poor, in particular, cannot afford their own legal representation and are assigned court-appointed lawyers who are often overworked, inexperienced, or underpaid. Such scenarios make indigent defendants doubly vulnerable in cases in which police or prosecutors...
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