Editorial: Criminal exonerations and ending capital punishment

Last year, 149 U.S. prison inmates were exonerated for crimes they did not commit. This casts a pall over capital punishment. (Photo: "Death Chamber, Oklahoma" by Josh Rushing / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr)

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Here’s your good news/bad news situation for the week: A record number of wrongfully convicted prison inmates were exonerated last year, and Texas led the nation.

knox newMarv KnoxGood news: Innocent people—149 of them nationwide and 54 in Texas—went free.

Bad news: They suffered an average of 14½ years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Worse news: The persistence of this problem continues to belie the morality of capital punishment.

The University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations documents the cases of false justice. They include:

A record 58 exonerations for homicide cases—more than two-thirds of whom were racial or ethnic minorities, and half who were African-American.

27 convictions based on false confessions, more than 80 percent of which involved homicide cases. Most of the victim defendants were under age 18, mentally handicapped or both.

65 cases of official misconduct, including three-quarters of all the homicide exonerations.

75 exonerations for cases in which no crime ever occurred. Most of those were drug cases, but six were murder cases, and 14 others were violent felonies.

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42 drug cases in Harris County, home of Houston.

The National Registry of Exonerations has recorded more than 1,700 exonerations in the past 27 years, according to the Texas Tribune.

We can be grateful conviction integrity units and the Innocence Project are seeking to overturn erroneous convictions. These groups work tirelessly and continuously to obtain justice for people who have been convicted wrongfully.

Still, the fact remains: Every year, more people are exonerated for crimes they did not commit. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, the rate of exonerations has about doubled in four years—from around 70 in 2011 to 149 last year.

Part of the reason for the growth is increased attention. Another is improved investigative techniques. But the escalation raises a vital question: How many people across the United States are in jail or prison because they have been convicted wrongfully?

Even more pressing: How many of them are on Death Row?

Most distressing: How many have been executed?

Last year, 40 percent of exonerations were bestowed upon people convicted of homicide. Many states—Texas leading them—execute killers.

Of course, many crimes—especially murders—send chills down our spines and revulse us to the core. We can’t help yearn for justice, and we often crave revenge.

But with the prevalence of wrongful convictions, how can we call ourselves civilized, much less Christian, and tolerate continued practice of capital punishment? Every time we execute someone who did not commit the crime, we as a society convict ourselves of the same crime for which we demand others pay the ultimate price.

Let’s say it once again: It’s time to kill the death penalty.

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