The Execution of Carlos DeLuna: Preventing Wrongful Convictions
Last September, during a Republican presidential primary debate in Simi Valley, California, moderator Brian Williams pressed Texas Governor Rick Perry on his unequivocal support for the death penalty. Perry had presided over 234 executions—more than any governor in modern times—Williams noted. The crowd burst into applause. When the noise died down, Williams continued, “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”
“I’ve never struggled with that at all,” Perry responded. “The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place. When someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States if that’s required.”
The exchange went viral the next day. Liberals raged against what they perceived to be Perry’s and the crowd’s insensitivity to human life. Conservatives rallied behind Perry’s conviction that the capital punishment is a just response to a heinous crime. A month after the debate, polling by Gallup found that 61 percent of Americans approved of using the death penalty for murderers.
That’s a substantial majority, but the figure used to be much higher. In 1994, 80 percent of the country supported the death penalty for a convicted murderer. By the turn of the century, that number had fallen to the mid-sixties. Last year’s result represented the lowest level of support since 1972, when the Supreme Court ruled that state death penalty statutes, as they were being applied, violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Advances in forensic science and recent exonerations of convicts have contributed to a political push to abolish the death penalty. Since 1989, when DNA evidence was first used to exonerate a prisoner, 299 others in 35 states and the District of Columbia have relied on DNA evidence to prove their innocence, in some cases while sitting on death row. The vast majority of these exonerations have occurred within the past decade. Recent years have also witnessed a number of high profile death penalty cases where substantial doubt exists about the guilt of the executed. In 2009, for example, The New Yorker chronicled the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was convicted of murdering his children by setting their home on fire, and revealed that the arson expert who testified against Willingham based his opinion, which was central to the conviction, on what is now widely considered to be junk science. More recently, supporters of Troy Davis, a Georgia man executed for the murder of a police officer, argued his innocence publicly and vociferously after seven of the nine non-police witnesses who testified against him recanted.