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Opinion

Opinion

Mistakes condemn death penalty

November 7, 2010

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A few days ago, Anthony Graves called his mother and asked what she was cooking for dinner. She asked why he wanted to know. He said, “Because I’m coming home.”

Maybe it sounds like an unremarkable exchange. But Anthony Graves had spent 18 years behind bars, 12 of them on death row, for the 1992 murder of an entire family, including four young children, in the Texas town of Somerville. It wasn’t until that day, Oct. 27, that the district attorney’s office finally accepted what he’d been saying for almost two decades: He is innocent.

So the news that Graves would be home for dinner was the very antithesis of unremarkable. His mother, he told a news conference the next day, couldn’t believe it. “I couldn’t believe I was saying it,” he added.

Graves’ release came after his story appeared in Texas Monthly magazine (www.texasmonthly .com). The article by Pamela Colloff detailed how he was convicted even though no physical evidence tied him to the crime, even though he had no motive to kill six strangers, even though three witnesses testified he was home at the time of the slaughter.

The case against Graves rested entirely upon jailhouse denizens who claimed they’d heard him confess and upon one Robert Carter, who admitted committing the crime, but initially blamed Graves. Carter, executed in 2000, recanted that claim repeatedly, most notably to District Attorney Charles Sebesta the day before Sebesta put him on the stand to testify against Graves. Defense attorneys say Sebesta never shared that exculpatory tidbit with them, even though he was required to do so.

Colloff’s story drew outraged media attention, including from yours truly. But the attention that mattered was that of the current DA, Bill Parham, who undertook his own investigation. He was unequivocal in explaining his decision to drop the charges. “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” he said. “There is nothing.”

One hopes people who love the death penalty are taking note. So often, their arguments in favor of that barbarous frontier relic seem to take place in some alternate universe where cops never fabricate evidence and judges never make mistakes, where lawyers are never inept and witnesses never commit perjury. So often, they behave as if in this one critical endeavor, unlike in every other endeavor they undertake, human beings somehow get it right every time.

I would not have convicted Anthony Graves of a traffic violation on the sort of evidence Sebesta offered. Yet somehow, a jury in Texas convicted him of murder and sent him off to die.

When you pin them on it, people who love the death penalty often retreat into sophistic nonsense. Don’t end the death penalty, someone once told me, just enact safeguards to ensure the innocent are never sentenced to die.

Yeah, right. Show me the safeguard that guarantees perfection.

Those who propose to tinker with the death penalty until it is foolproof remind me of the addict attempting to negotiate with his addiction, desperately proffering minor concessions that will allow him to continue indulging in this thing that is killing him.

But there comes a day when you simply have to kick the habit.

As a nation, we are stubbornly addicted to the death penalty, strung out on exacting retribution and calling it justice. Even though we know innocent men and women have surely died as a result.

Or, like Anthony Graves, been robbed of irreplaceable years. He was 26 when he was arrested. He is 45 now. When he made that call home to his mother, he borrowed his lawyer’s cell phone.

The lawyer had to show him how to use it.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com

Comments

Ray Parker 3 years, 5 months ago

We will never give up our God-given right to capital punishment.

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equalaccessprivacy 3 years, 5 months ago

According to a recent Amnesty International report 139 men on death row have been exonerated since DNA evidence became available: http://blog.amnestyusa.org/deathpenalty/scent-lineup-not-necessary-as-texas-prosecutors-declare-anthony-graves-innocent/

That's way too many mistakes for a civilized person to rationalize. Capital murder degrades the state even more than it does the sometimes falsely accused criminal. Inhuman or vicious conduct does not excuse equally heinous and despicable punishment."Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord."

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Butterflies 3 years, 5 months ago

This is why I think it was wrong for Oklahoma to vote against Sharia Law. Using Sharia's prosecuting method to put someone to death makes perfect sense.

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Ray Parker 3 years, 5 months ago

We will never give up our God-given right to capital punishment.

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jstthefacts 3 years, 5 months ago

"The night that this man was executed I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Not because I felt any further threat from him but because he could no longer ever be in any position again, through parole or other means, to torture another person again."

Very sorry for your terrible experience. I am fortunate to not be in your position and don't intend to second guess you. However, just as you were an innocent victim, you stand in favor of this mans execution although the very process may cause other innocent victims to be executed as well. How many innocent victims being executed is fair price for capitol punishment.

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Cait McKnelly 3 years, 5 months ago

I am an anomaly; a "loony lefty" (an appendage I'm rather proud of) who is fully in favor of the death penalty. I have personal reasons for that opinion. In 1970 I was brutally assaulted and came close to being murdered by a man and his cohort of three others. To this day I still don't know why they chose to let me live as there was talk during the assault of hanging me. In 1978, after a string of other brutal sexual assaults, this man and his cohort did kill a woman. He was convicted of sexual assault and murder in the course of the rape and was sentenced to be executed. Eleven years after the murder, in 1989, after numerous appeals, he was executed by lethal injection, the first execution in Missouri since 1965. It is my opinion that there are people who walk this earth who are not "human". They are animals, and not just animals but vicious animals, who, loosed upon the normal human population, derive pleasure from causing great pain and suffering. They have no conscience and no concept of empathy or compassion for human suffering. As an example, during the course of the 1978 murder, as the murderer and his "friends" were torturing the victim in an upstairs bedroom, his own nine year old daughter was sitting in the kitchen, terrified out of her mind, listening to the screams of the victim and attempting to do homework as her own father was in the room overhead repeatedly raping and assaulting the woman. These are people for whom execution is an act of putting down a terminally ill animal. Their very actions have removed them from the human race and by those actions they have given up the very right to be called human. The night that this man was executed I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Not because I felt any further threat from him but because he could no longer ever be in any position again, through parole or other means, to torture another person again. I felt that as long as this man was alive he would find a way to do so, even from deep within a prison. He was just that evil and just that much of an animal. Therefore, before making judgments about the death penalty, I urge you to listen to the victims; the families of the murdered and even the living who bear scars from these people. Remorse is not enough even if they say they are remorseful. Why? Because by their very actions they have proven they don't even know how to feel remorse.

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oldvet 3 years, 5 months ago

"Even though we know innocent men and women have surely died as a result."

I believe that there is zero proof of this statement since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-70's. The lengthy appeals processes, along with new technologies, have eliminated this.

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Eybea Opiner 3 years, 5 months ago

I am not opposed to the death penalty, but would support it only when irrefutable DNA or video evidence proved guilt.

Whatever is done about the death penalty won't stop innocent people being convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison.

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