There is only one step we can take to ensure that an innocent person is never executed, and that is to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison.
I was elated when Washington state senators voted to end the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without parole. Now it’s up to the House to follow suit.
As someone who was sentenced to death for a crime I didn’t commit, I know that if this type of horrible mistake can happen to an honorably discharged Marine with no criminal record or criminal history, it can happen to anyone in America.
I was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl, Dawn Hamilton, in 1984 in Maryland. I was 23. I was arrested based on an anonymous tip that I had been seen with the victim, though there was no physical evidence linking me to the crime. I spent nine years in prison, including two years on death row, before DNA testing excluded me as the perpetrator. As a result, I became the first death-row prisoner exonerated by DNA testing in the United States.
Now, along with dozens of other innocent men and women who were also sentenced to death in this country, I travel around the United States talking about my experience. I have taken several trips to Washington to speak with lawmakers in Olympia and members of the public because I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else.
Washington has its own unfortunate history with wrongful convictions. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989 the state has had 47 exonerations for a wide variety of crimes. Five of those involved individuals convicted of murder. One man, Benjamin Harris III, was even sentenced to death in this state. In 1997, he became the first death-row inmate released from prison in Washington since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1981. The individuals who were wrongfully convicted in this state served more than 282 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Washington’s wrongful convictions involve the same sorts of errors that have led to 161 innocent men and women being freed from death row nationwide since 1973, errors such as witness misidentification, the use of junk science, false informant testimony, misconduct by police or prosecutors, and false confessions. Most cases involve more than one of these problems. Some of these individuals came within hours or days of execution before their innocence was discovered.
A study released by the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 found that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are likely innocent. That is approximately one out of every 24 prisoners on death row. The risk is always there, even if it hasn’t happened yet.
There is simply no way to bring an innocent person back from the grave if he is executed. And as long as our justice system is run by humans, there will always be errors. Even the most well intentioned prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers and juries can make mistakes. In my case, five witnesses claimed to have seen me with the victim or near the crime scene, but they were mistaken.
There is only one step we can take to ensure that an innocent person is never executed, and that is to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison. This is the only way to ensure that if new evidence is discovered or if forensic science evolves, as it did with the advent of DNA testing, that the state will have an opportunity to correct its mistake.
Executing an innocent person would be an unforgivable and grave mistake. Ending the death penalty in Washington ensures that such a mistake will never be made here. For this reason, I hope that the members of the state House follow the Senate’s lead and act swiftly to abolish the death penalty.