Moving away from the death penalty: wrongful convictions

On June 28, 2013, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights held a High-Level event on the death penalty. Opened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Wrongful Convictions” examined globally the increasing number of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, with a particular focus on the failure of judicial review to capture error in death penalty cases.

Wrongful convictions in the United States are much more common than people think. In the case of the death penalty, the punishment is irreversible. In 2007, the United Nations called for a world-wide moratorium on capital punishment. Last year, 174 out of the 193 UN Member States were execution free. Many Member States have observed that people are convicted of crimes they did not commit and are later exonerated due to advanced DNA techniques.

Damien Wayne Echols, a victim of a wrongful conviction. Echols, one of the “West Memphis 3”, was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit and served 18 years in prison. He was one of three teenage boys who were accused of murdering three younger boys. One of the West Memphis 3, after a reported 12 hours of interrogation, confessed that he, Echols, and a third teen had committed the crimes. Primarily on the basis of that confession, they were convicted. Echols was sentenced to death. During the panel, he reflected on his experience.

Professor Randon Garrett, another panel member stated that the primary causes of wrongful convictions are products of practices that are relied on every day. Cases against innocent persons may seem strong at the time but confessions can be contaminated, informants and eyewitness identifications are unreliable. According to Garrett, poverty and low intelligence are the two main determining factors related to those individuals who are sentenced to death. Echols, for example came from a poverty stricken family and because he could not invest in specialists to testify at his trial, his chances of properly being defended were limited.

The panelists argued that there need to be more proper safe guards for those individuals who cannot properly defend themselves. They also suggested United Nations should advocate more to abolish the death penalty since innocent people are being convicted and cannot properly defend themselves because of factors they cannot control.

Visit the Innocence Project for more information about protecting individuals accused in capital murder cases.

General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) first called for an end to capital punishment in 1959.

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