Tomorrow, September 21, is the one-year anniversary of the controversial execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. (See report from a year ago here.) Since 1989 DNA has revealed that wrongful conviction—the conviction of a person totally innocent of the crime—does happen, and more frequently than most Americans believe. That reality begs the question of whether or not an innocent person has been executed in the United States. Troy Davis’s execution elevated this question in national and international debate a year ago and is raising the discussion again one year later on at least one university campus.
As reported in the Winston-Salem Journal (here), Wake Forest is hosting a two-day event to discuss wrongful executions. The event is sponsored by the Wake Forest University School of Law’s Innocence and Justice Clinic, Wake Forest University’s Institute for Public Engagement and Wake Forest’s religion and documentary film studies departments.
Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law, who is writing a book, “Executed in Error” on the topic, notes that there are many compelling cases—including the Davis case—in which there is persuasive evidence of an execution of an innocent person.
DNA-proven wrongful convictions have recast the debate on capital punishment from the polarizing morality discussion to the question of whether or not there is 100 percent accuracy in the determination of guilt for the ultimate punishment. The Innocence Project reports (here) that “17 of the 297 persons exonerated through DNA served time on death row.”
This anniversary should underscore an important lesson: We can reduce wrongful convictions and uncertainties such as those experienced in the Troy Davis case by implementing many proven best practices in criminal justice procedures. These include, but are not limited to, access to post-conviction DNA testing in worthy cases, evidence preservation, blind administration of lineups, recording of custodial interrogations, and numerous recommendations to elevate standards in forensic science. All of these measures would assure more confidence in the accuracy of outcomes in criminal justice, not only in the United States but throughout the world.
For those who were troubled by Troy Davis’s death a year ago, a productive channel for your concern—and a worthy legacy for any who may have been wrongfully executed—is committed advocacy for recommended improvements in the criminal justice system.