On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will hear oral arguments on whether to strike down the state’s death penalty as cruel and therefore impermissible under the state constitution. As two people who were convicted of murders we did not commit, and who came close to being executed, we hope the court will invalidate the death penalty and make sure that no innocent people are ever executed in our state.
If sentencing an innocent person to death isn’t cruel, then nothing is. Nationwide, since 1973, 166 people have been exonerated and freed from death row with evidence of their innocence. Six of them were in Pennsylvania. Citizens should not look away from the cruelty. It is carried out in your names and with your tax dollars.
Our personal stories are shocking, yet they could have happened to anyone. Kirk was an honorably-discharged Marine living peacefully when he was falsely accused of the horrific rape and murder of a 9-year-old child. Wrongfully convicted in 1985, Kirk was the first person in the U.S. to be exonerated from death row based on DNA testing after nearly nine years in prison. In 2003, the actual perpetrator pleaded guilty.
Ray was exonerated from death row after being sentenced for the tragic crime of a woman’s murder in a bar. He won his freedom when DNA testing proved his innocence after 10 years in prison, three on death row.
Our wrongful convictions were caused by junk science, mistaken eyewitness identification, prosecutorial misconduct, and above all, lack of access to high-quality legal representation at trial — all of which remain problems in Pennsylvania’s broken death penalty system.
We both proved our innocence, and have gone on to found and lead a Philadelphia-based organization for exonerees, but not all exoneration stories have happy endings. William Nieves was wrongfully convicted of a murder in Philadelphia and served six years on death row before being freed. He needed gall bladder surgery, which he did not receive in prison. At one point, William glimpsed his records during a medical exam and learned that he had hepatitis C, which prison officials never treated. Five years after winning his freedom, William died from complications from the disease at 39 years old.
Neil Ferber, a furniture salesman railroaded into a double-murder conviction and death sentence, also suffered serious health consequences from wrongful incarceration. He won a $1.9 million lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia for his wrongful conviction, but he still had to live with post-traumatic stress disorder and bleeding ulcers. He died of a heart attack at age 63.
These stories are not rare, and neither is the cruelty. At least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the U.S. are innocent, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. With a 4 percent error rate, we can be sure innocent people have been executed. In Pennsylvania today, 137 people are on death row. That suggests there are at least five innocent people wasting away, as we were until we could prove our innocence.
In 2018, the Joint State Government Commission completed an exhaustive study of the state’s death penalty and concluded: “The only certain way to eliminate the risk of condemning and executing a factually innocent person would be to eliminate the sentence and not execute any convict.” The commission recommended an overhaul of our capital punishment system, including providing attorneys for capital defendants statewide, greater oversight of prosecution decisions, and other reforms, but those measures have not been enacted.
Our death penalty system is still broken, inaccurate, and unreliable. In Pennsylvania and every state, we have life without parole sentences for the small number of offenders who show no hope for rehabilitation. Because the death penalty inevitably comes with the risk of killing innocent people, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania should strike it down as cruel and unconstitutional.
Former Pennsylvania resident Ray Krone cofounded Witness to Innocence with Sister Helen Prejean in 2003. Kirk Bloodsworth is the executive director of Witness to Innocence and lives in Philadelphia. He is a supporter of the Innocence Protection Act, which established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program that provides federal grants to help states defray costs of testing DNA evidence.