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CIP Takes Action to Keep Innocent People off Death Row

by Michael Semanchik, published

death row Mark R / Shutterstock.comt

The First District Court of Appeal of California is set to hear oral arguments Tuesday on whether to resume executing inmates in California. The argument, largely based on whether the lethal drug cocktail is legal and whether prison officials followed proper protocols, will continue the ongoing legal battle to execute individuals in the state.

More than 700 individuals are sitting on California’s death row; as many as a dozen have exhausted their appeals. The last execution in California occurred in 2006.

The California Innocence Project (CIP) is concerned with the possibility that an innocent person could be put to death. In California, three individuals have been exonerated after sitting on death row since 1976.

In any given year, CIP reviews 2,000 claims of innocence from California inmates. Often times, CIP closes cases although they believe an individual to be innocent. This is due to the high legal burden imposed by the court in overturning a conviction, as well as the difficulty of uncovering exculpatory evidence given the obstacles we face with police agencies and district attorney’s offices.

In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for an arson/murder. A subsequent investigation into the case by leading fire scientists concluded that the cause of the fire was accidental. The fear of any innocence project, citizen, or state government should be that an innocent person may be executed.

In addition, 142 persons on death row have been exonerated. Many would have been executed if not for the work of dedicated lawyers and organizations who kept re-investigating the cases until they found evidence of factual innocence. But, many of these exonerations came years later as a result of new advances in forensic science or witnesses who could not be found for a number of years.

On April 27, 2013, CIP will begin a march from San Diego to Sacramento to deliver pardon petitions to the governor in twelve cases where the justice system has failed. Although none of the “California 12” are on death row, they are examples of flaws in the criminal justice system and are representative of the causes of wrongful convictions seen nationwide.

In fact, in one case, CIP uncovered sealed police reports suggesting a third party committed the crime. A U.S. federal magistrate ruled that this new evidence warranted reversal of the conviction, but the federal district court disagreed and decided not to adopt the magistrate’s report and recommendation.

In another CIP case, the California Supreme Court recently decided an expert’s opinion is not “false evidence” when the expert’s opinion later changes, making it more difficult to overturn convictions based on new forensic evidence. Specifically, an expert changed his opinion about whether the defendant left a bite mark on the victim, originally matching it to the defendant and subsequently excluding the defendant altogether.

Based on the advances in forensic science and the death row exonerations in other states, can California risk executing an innocent man? As such, California should discontinue executions and concentrate on reforming the criminal justice system to stop wrongful convictions and ensure that innocent people never reach the execution chamber.

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