Innocence and the Death Penalty

by Sophie Trist



In April of 2017, the state of Arkansas likely executed an innocent man. Recently-tested evidence from the 1993 murder of Debra Reese uncovered DNA other than that of Ledell Lee, who was executed for the crime. Lee appealed for DNA testing in his case, but the courts repeatedly denied his motions. The day before his execution, Ledell Lee told the BBC, “My dying words will be as it has always been, I am an innocent man.” The DNA tests were performed only after Mr. Lee’s sister Patricia Young, the ACLU, and the Innocence Project sued the state of Arkansas. If Lee is posthumously exonerated of Debra Reese’s murder, it will no doubt bring his family much-needed closure, but it won’t change the fact that our broken, brutal system of state-sanctioned homicide took another innocent life.


Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 185 people on death row have been exonerated — approximately one for every ten prisoners sentenced to death. Three to four times a year, courts in this country determine that an innocent person is locked in a cell for 23 hours a day awaiting an inhumane execution. In my home state of Louisiana, 11 people on death row have been exonerated, putting us fourth in the U.S. for number of exonerations. The Death Penalty Information Center maintains a list of men who were executed despite strong doubts about their guilt. According to the Innocence Project, DNA evidence has been critical in 232 exonerations since 1992, eighteen of which have involved people on death row. Eighteen people owe their lives and their freedom to the DNA testing that may have saved Ledell Lee. Despite this, states frequently resist calls for extensive forensic testing in death penalty appeals, even when further testing is supported by the victims’ families. One capital defense lawyer whose client was denied post-conviction DNA testing said, “I’d like to know what the state is so scared of… Why are they afraid of the truth? This is sad and so disturbing.”


Witness to Innocence is the only organization in the United States led directly by death row exonerees and their families. WTI empowers death row survivors to tell their stories, become advocates for abolition, and directly challenge political leaders and the general public to confront the inhumanity of capital punishment. The organization also provides critical support to those facing the unique social, psychological, and financial challenges of life after exoneration. In addition to abolition of the death penalty, Witness to Innocence calls for fair and speedy compensation for the wrongly convicted and their families and works to put justice back into the criminal justice system.


Racism and classism are woven into every facet of the American death penalty system. But one of the most horrifying aspects of our broken system is its propensity for sentencing innocent people to die. With one person on death row exonerated for every eight to ten people executed, the likelihood of executing an innocent person is far too high. No human being is infallible, and death is irreversible. The thought of anybody having that power — especially a government with a history of abuse against the marginalized — is terrifying.


Statistics on innocence and the death penalty are just one symptom of a much larger issue of dehumanization and the systemic devaluation of people who are BIPOC, low-income, or disabled. The right to life should not belong only to the innocent. As best-selling author, civil rights activist, and founder of Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson puts it, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Every man and woman on death row, innocent or guilty, possesses incalculable human dignity and worth. It is time to consign our broken system of state-sanctioned homicide to the ash heap of history.



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