Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

For death row survivors, the fight against capital punishment starts in Philly | Opinion

Exonerated death-row survivors lead the charge to end the death penalty.

Kwame Ajamu speaks at a 15th anniversary event for Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based group led by exonerated death row survivors to speak out against capital punishment.
Kwame Ajamu speaks at a 15th anniversary event for Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based group led by exonerated death row survivors to speak out against capital punishment.Read moreKWAME AJAMU // KIRK BLOODWORTH

If the justice system worked in America, we never would have met. Kwame grew up in Cleveland. Kirk grew up in Maryland. Kwame was a teenager with no criminal history. Kirk was a former Marine, also with no criminal history. We were both just starting our lives when we were arrested for murders we didn't commit and sent to death row.

In Kwame's case, the police coerced a 13-year-old boy to identify him, his brother, and a friend as the killers of a money order salesman. He spent 28 years in prison, including three years on death row, before the witness told the truth, and Kwame and his co-defendants were exonerated with evidence of their innocence.

Despite having an alibi, Kirk was convicted of the rape-murder of a 9-year-old girl. In prison in 1992, he read about a forensic breakthrough called DNA fingerprinting and fought for testing. After eight years, he became the first capitally-convicted person in the U.S. to be exonerated by DNA testing.

We wish we could say our stories are unusual, but they are not. Since 1973, 164 people have been exonerated from death row. In fact, for every nine executions, one death-row prisoner has been freed because of evidence of their innocence. As long as humans are in charge, mistakes will be made – including irreversible mistakes.

>> READ MORE: Why these criminal justice reforms should be a no-brainer for Pa., no matter what party you're in | Opinion

Death-row exonerees have every reason to stay home and disengage. But many of them have joined the Philadelphia-based Witness to Innocence, the only organization in the U.S. composed of and led by exonerated death-row survivors and their families, and are dedicating their lives to making sure that what happened to them never happens to anyone else. Take Sabrina Butler. She was a teenager in Mississippi when she was convicted of murdering her baby and sentenced to death. She spent more than five years in prison before she was able to prove her son died of natural causes.

This week, Witness to Innocence reached a milestone, our 15th anniversary. As we enter our next phase, we have launched Accuracy & Justice Workshops to bring together exonerated death-row survivors and criminal justice professionals, including police officers, prosecutors, and judges, with the goal of reducing wrongful convictions. Reform-minded prosecutors across the country are hosting these discussions, and our next session, in December, will be with the 300 prosecutors in Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner's office.

>> READ MORE: Parole is not a get-out-of-jail-free card | Opinion

Of course, the only surefire way to avoid executing an innocent person is to stop imposing the death penalty. And over the last several years, capital punishment has been in steady decline. In 1996, 315 people were sentenced to death. Last year, 39 people received death sentences. Public support is at its lowest level in 45 years, according to Gallup. Less than half of Americans believe that capital punishment is applied fairly.

Our leaders are getting the message. Last month, the Washington Supreme Court found that the state's death penalty was applied in an arbitrary and racially biased manner and struck it down as unconstitutional. With the Washington State ruling, 20 states have abolished the death penalty by court order or legislative action. The states that continue to carry out executions tend to be the same states that had slavery, which should tell you something.

>> READ MORE: I want the Board of Pardons to release my brother's killer from prison. Why won't they listen? | Opinion

Pennsylvania is one of three states that have a moratorium, and rightly so, given that the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment recently concluded that many systemic problems were intractable and "there is no way to put procedural safeguards in place that will guarantee with 100 percent certainty that the Commonwealth will not execute an innocent person."

Based on the empirical data and our own life experiences, we believe it is time to end capital punishment across the U.S. Some people support capital punishment in theory, but in practice, it is too broken to be fixed. We need to get the death penalty right every time, and we don't. If it can happen to us, it can happen to anyone.

Kwame Ajamu is chair of the board and Kirk Bloodsworth is acting executive director of Witness to Innocence.