Innocent on Death Row
“They’re playing Russian Roulette with our lives. Our lives have no value.”
John Thompson, exonerated after 14 years on death row
Whenever I talk to someone about the death penalty, and my belief that it has no place in society, I’ll come back to innocence a lot. For me, the possibility of executing an innocent person is one of the most compelling reasons to abolish state-sanctioned executions.
In the United States, 142 former death row inmates have been exonerated – found innocent of the crimes they were due to be executed for and released – since 1976. That’s one person released for every ten that have been executed. In every other part of our lives, a failure rate this high would be worrying. To have it when you’re killing people is beyond unacceptable.
Our friends at the One for Ten project, inspired by this statistic, have been travelling across the US to film interviews with 10 of the 142 former death row prisoners who have been found innocent. Each interview has been edited on the road and released as a short film. The film series is free for all of us to use when campaigning against the death penalty – and you can watch all of them here.
Mistakes, missing evidence, misconduct, lies and racism
As much as we are sometimes loathe to admit, humans are fallible. Mistakes can be made even in the most rigorous justice system. But if justice ends with execution then proving that mistake, and acting to rectify it, becomes a race against time.
And mistakes are only part of the problem. Wilful lies told by others trying to evade justice, misconduct by prosecutors, or even outright racism all contribute to innocent people ending up behind bars.
“[I] believed in the death penalty. I was naive. You turn on the TV, you see somebody being handcuffed, chained up, hauled in and out of the court room, hell, they look guilty to me.”
Randy Steidl, exonerated in 2004 after 17 years on death row
Randy Steidl was found guilty of stabbing to death a couple in their home. Despite no physical evidence linking Randy to the crime, he was found guilty based on eyewitness evidence from two people who both claimed to have seen Randy commit the murder - but without seeing each other. The police put pressure on the eyewitnesses to get their statements, and the prosecution didn’t follow up on evidence that may have shown Randy to be innocent.
Randy thought that once he took the stand, as an innocent man he’d be believed. “But [the jury] had that blind faith in the system, that police officers wouldn’t lie; nobody would get on the witness stand, hold up their hand and swear to tell the truth, and lie.”
Randy is just one of 142 exonerees living in the States. Who knows how many innocent people have been executed by state authorities. Where there is room for doubt, the absolute punishment should not be used. And there is always room for doubt.
Randy’s story is just one featured in the One For Ten films. Watch the lot here and use them to persuade others that the death penalty has no place in a just society.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.