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Wrongful Convictions Like Mine Are Why It's Time To End The Death Penalty

With another Arizona death row inmate taking his case to the Supreme Court, justices ought to keep people like me in mind.

11/09/2017 12:33 EST
Handout . / Reuters

Let’s play two truths and a lie. 

I have played Dungeons & Dragons with guys on death row.

I got new teeth thanks to the TV show “Extreme Makeover” and now have a Hollywood smile. 

I am a lifelong Republican and veteran of the U.S. Air Force.

All three are true, no lies. 

I spent more than 10 years in Arizona prisons for a crime I didn’t commit, including almost three years on death row. In 1992, I was convicted of killing a waitress in a Phoenix bar where I sometimes played darts.

Because of a car accident in childhood, I had crooked front teeth. The police interrogated me and asked me to bite into a piece of Styrofoam. At my trial and re-trial, a so-called expert said that my teeth marks on the Styrofoam matched teeth marks on the victim’s body. 

The police decided I did it and built a case against me. No one bothered to test the blood that the real killer left on the victim’s underwear. The crime lab didn’t test the hairs found on her body. Fingerprints from the crime scene weren’t sent to the national database for a match. It wasn’t until 2002 that DNA testing ― which Arizona prosecutors opposed ― showed that I couldn’t have committed the crime and identified Kenneth Phillips, who is now serving a prison sentence for his crime.

Arizona is back in the spotlight because a man on death row named Abel Hidalgo has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the state’s death penalty statute and abolish capital punishment nationwide. Before all this happened to me, I supported the death penalty. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” sounds good, unless they are talking about you and you were home asleep at the time of the murder.

The death penalty is supposed to be applied to the worst offenders, but it’s more often applied to the defendants with the worst lawyers."

Now I join the chorus of voices, including a growing number of conservatives, who say it’s time to end the death penalty in every state. We have been unable to create a system that is applied fairly, reserves the punishment for the most serious crimes and doesn’t make terrible mistakes. The death penalty is supposed to be applied to the worst offenders, but it’s more often applied to the defendants with the worst lawyers.

Mr. Hidalgo was convicted in Maricopa County, which uses the death penalty more than any other county in Arizona. That means whether you get the death penalty is an accident of where the crime occurred, not necessarily the facts of the case or the nature of the offender. And all too often, the race of the defendant and the victim drives who gets the death penalty. One study showed that white jurors were more likely to recommend a death sentence for Latinos than for white defendants.

The court should look at where we are as a country, find that a national consensus has emerged against the death penalty and rule it unconstitutional, once and for all. Thirty-one states have formally abandoned capital punishment. That figure includes 19 states that have ended it all together, four states that have put the death penalty on hold, and eight others that haven’t had an execution in the past 10 years.

All the numbers point toward the death penalty’s demise. Last year, juries imposed 31 death sentences, the fewest since the Supreme Court declared then-existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972. The 20 executions in 2016 marked the lowest number in a quarter century, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Also last year, national public opinion polls showed support for capital punishment at a 40-year low.

I wish I could say my story is unusual. But the truth is, 160 men and women have been exonerated and freed from death row since 1973. I often wonder how the police and prosecutors that railroad innocent people onto the gurney sleep at night.

In an op-ed, Marty Stroud, a former prosecutor in Louisiana who caused an innocent man, Glenn Ford, to serve 30 years on death row before being exonerated and released, explained: “In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning.” Mr. Stroud is unusual for his honesty, but not for his tactics.

A TV show was able to fix my teeth, but no one has been able to remove mistakes and unfairness from our death penalty system. A sentence of life without parole, which is available in essentially every state, keeps the public safe while affirming our basic humanity. The U.S. Supreme Court should take Hidalgo v. Arizona and end the death penalty in Arizona and everywhere else.

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