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WORD AMONG US
Awaiting the End of Time by Michael B. Ross
But according to his promise we await new
heavens and a new earth in which
(2 Peter 3:13)
The end time. The end of all things and all life
as we know it. A terrible time. A very frightening
time. A time when “the heavens will pass away
with a terrible noise and heavenly bodies will
disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on
it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10).
But as fearsome as that time promises to be, it
also promises to be the most glorious of times. A
terrible and painful transformation from the
limited experience that we have now to what God
promises we will have with him. It is the time of
the final judgment, when all people will be
gathered before God. Judgment day, when the
righteous and just will be separated from the
unrighteous and unjust. The time when the
ungodly will be cast into damnation, while the
godly inherit “a new earth in which righteousness
What Is God Waiting For? The righteous are
sometimes very impatient, secure in their
knowledge of salvation, eager to reap the
rewards promised by God, and just as eager to
see all sinners punished. “We deserve salvation,”
they cry. “They deserve damnation. What is God
God is love. And one way that he shows this love
is through his infinite patience, not just for the
righteous, but for the transgressors as well. If
God only cared about the righteous, the end time
would have come centuries ago. But God cares
for all of us, even the greatest of sinners. God
loves all of us. He wants all of us to find our way
home to him. He doesn’t want to leave anyone
behind. “The Lord is not slow to do what he has
promised, as some think. Instead, he is patient
with you, because he does not want anyone to
be destroyed, but wants all to turn away from
their sins” (2 Peter 3:9).
I am one of the greatest of sinners. I have
murdered eight women in a horrible way. Many
believe that I have no place in heaven, and that
instead I should be condemned to hell. Not too
long ago, I would have agreed with them. I had
given up on myself. I couldn’t see beyond my
bloodstained hands. I couldn’t see beyond the
anger and hatred in my heart. I was consumed
by an evil sickness that made me less than
human. And I believed that I was beyond
redemption. I couldn’t believe in myself; I
couldn’t forgive myself; I couldn’t love myself.
And if I couldn’t do these things, how could I
expect God to love me?
God Is Love. But God loves me. I can’t say that
I fully understand why he would love someone
such as I--one of the greatest of all sinners--but
he does. This is exactly what God’s love is. It
isn’t a love that is saved for the righteous alone.
It isn’t a love that is saved only for the
deserving. It is an unconditional love that is
offered to everyone--even to someone such as
God wants all of us to come home to him. That’s
why he sent Jesus to us. Remember in Matthew,
when Jesus ate at the tax collector’s home with
a variety of sinners and outcasts? Remember his
words to the Pharisees who were outraged that
he would associate with such sinners? “People
who are well do not need a doctor, but those
who are sick. . . . I have not come to
respectable people, but outcasts” (Matthew
God loves us all. And he is reaching out to us all.
His greatest wish is that we all return to him. It’s
easy to welcome the righteous, and it’s easy to
reject the sinners. That’s what we all tend to do.
As one theologian put it, “We are quick to
moralize, and slow to love. We have been
forgiven much and embraced by a compassionate
God, but are too slow, if not totally unwilling, to
be accepting, forgiving, compassionate, and
God doesn’t take the easy way out. He doesn’t
turn away from us. We may turn away from him,
but God will never turn away from us. And he
doesn’t give up on us, even when we have given
up on ourselves. He works to transform sinners.
This isn’t easy, and it takes time. But God is
merciful enough to give us that time.
Transformation takes time, and is quite often
painful. Sinners such as myself understand this all
too well. My personal transformation took years.
It was a long, painful process of self-realization
and growth, and I’m not finished yet. Even Paul
recognized personal transformation as an ongoing
process when he wrote, “I don’t mean to say
that I am perfect. I haven’t learned all I should
even yet, but I keep working toward that day
when I will finally be all that Christ saved me for
and wants me to be” (Philippians 3:12).
God Rolled Up His Sleeves. God got his hands
dirty with me. I was as sinful as they come. I
didn’t deserve his help. I didn’t deserve his love.
Yet as filthy and repulsive as I was, God wasn’t
afraid to roll up his sleeves and reach down into
that dark, dank pit of evil to give me--the
greatest of sinners--a hand up to the light. It
didn’t happen overnight. There is no such thing
as an instant victory over sin. It is a long, ugly,
painful process. And it only happens because God
is patient and loves us enough to give us the
time we need.
It took a lot of work before the Holy Spirit began
to influence who I was. It took a lot of time and
effort--not just on my part, but on the part of
God who didn’t give up on me and touched me
with the Holy Spirit, and on the part of a very
special priest, who, like God, refused to give up
There are a lot of others out there like me,
sinners whom the righteous have given up on.
But God hasn’t given up on them. The day of “a
new earth in which righteousness dwells” will
come. Perhaps not as soon as some might wish,
but it will come as promised. It’s just that God is
in no hurry. And he is giving every opportunity
possible for even the greatest of sinners to
repent and transform their lives.
Editor’s note: Michael B. Ross has been on
death row since June of 1987. He is currently
under a stay of execution pending the resolution
of the appeals process.
"When we abolished
the punishment for treason that you should be hanged and then
cut down while still alive, then disemboweled while still alive, and then quartered, we
did not abolish that punishment because we sympathized with traitors, but because
we took the view that this was a punishment no longer consistent with our
These words, spoken
by Lord Chancellor Gardiner during the 1965 death penalty
abolition debates in the British Parliament, illustrate the feeling of most individuals
opposed to capital punishment. It's not sympathy toward the murderer that we feel;
indeed, most of us feel a great deal of anger and revulsion toward all murderers and
their actions. Our objection is that the death penalty is a complete renunciation of all
that is embodied in our concept of humanity. More simply put, executions degrade us
In today's society,
the execution process is far removed from most individual citizens.
We may, or more likely may not, be aware of the criminal acts that put an individual on
death row — and if we are, it is usually only through sensationalized press accounts
— but very few of us know of the human being whom society has condemned to
death. Even fewer of us have witnessed, or ever will witness, an actual execution.
They are carried out in the middle of the night, in the dark, away from us all, to hide
what they really are: a barbaric punishment symbolic of our less civilized past.
The public is kept
as far away as possible from the whole process to keep them from
seeing that human beings — real flesh and blood, real people — are being put to
death. This deliberate dehumanization of the entire process makes it easier for us to
distance ourselves from capital punishment and to accept it as "something
government does," which in turn allows us to avoid accepting individual responsibility
for the consequences of such actions. But we are in fact responsible, for our state and
federal government are killing people in our names.
There are acceptable
alternatives to capital punishment that are more in line with the
values of our supposedly enlightened and humanistic society. The state is supposed
to be the pillar of our ideals, and its institutions should emulate the best values of our
society. Are not the greatest of these values our compassion, our concern for human
rights, and our capacity for mercy? By continuing to conduct executions, aren't we
undermining the very foundations of our greatness?
As Zimbabwe poet Chenjerai
Hove wrote, "The death sentence is abominable, as
abominable as the crime itself. Our society must be based on love, not hatred and
victimization. Our penal code must be based on rehabilitation rather than
annihilation." For so long as the spirit of vengeance maintains the slightest vestige of
respectability, so long as it pervades the public mind and infuses its evil upon the
statute books of law, we will make no headway toward the control of crime in our
There are suitable
alternatives. Individuals who are a danger to society must be
removed from society. Society has the right to protect itself; there is no disputing that.
If rehabilitation is not possible, or is not a consideration, then that removal must be
made permanent, but that permanent removal need not take the form of the death
Those who favor the
abolition of capital punishment do not advocate releasing
convicted murderers into society. The choice is not between the death penalty and
unconditional release, but between the death penalty and meaningful long-term
sentences. Life without the possibility of parole, or a natural life sentence, meets the
necessary requirements of society without being excessively brutal or barbaric.
Feelings of retribution,
vengeance, blood atonement, and the like are difficult to
suppress. Perhaps there are some individuals who, in some sense, "deserve" to be
executed. But the real question that needs to be asked is, Do we really need the
death penalty? In light of such suitable alternatives as natural life sentences, is society
in general paying too high a price when it executes its own citizens? The late United
States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once wrote, "I cannot agree that the
American people have been so hardened, so embittered that they want to take the life
of one who performs even the basest criminal act knowing that the execution is
nothing more than bloodlust."
It is time for us
to acknowledge the death penalty for what it really is — barbaric
savagery, pure and simple — and abolish it nationwide by replacing it with natural life
sentences. By rejecting the seemingly simple solutions that compromise our values
and undermine the fundamental principles of society, we maintain the greatness of
our country. It is certainly true that by giving in to our basest emotions, we lower
ourselves to the very level of the persons whom we wish to execute, and in the
process weaken the moral fibers that bind and protect our society.
While it is admittedly
difficult at times, when we recognize the humanity of even the
vilest criminal — when we acknowledge them as fellow human beings rather than as
objects to be discarded — we pay ourselves the highest of tributes and celebrate our
What can you do? You
can get involved, for no justice is done if everyone leaves the
work of justice to others. There are numerous local, state, and national organizations
working hard to rid this country of capital punishment. They need your help and
support. For a list of these groups send $3 for The Abolitionist's Directory to The
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; 1436 "U" Street NW, Suite #104;
Washington, DC 20009, or call (202) 387-3890. And please tell them that Michael
Ross sent you. Together we can make a difference.
Michael Ross is a
condemned man on Connecticut's death row. He has been on
death row since June 1987, and is currently under a stay of execution pending the
resolution of the appeals process.
Unmasking The Face of Death - by Michael Ross
"When we abolished the punishment for treason that you should be
hanged and then cut down while still alive, then disemboweled while
still alive, and then quartered, we did not abolish that punishment
because we sympathized with traitors, but because we took the view
that this was a punishment no longer consistent with our self-respect."
These words, spoken by Lord Chancellor Gardiner during the 1965 death penalty
abolition debates in the British Parliament, illustrate the feeling felt by most
individuals opposed to capital punishment. It's not sympathy towards the murderer
that we feel; indeed, most of us feel a great deal of anger and revulsion towards all
murderers and their actions. Our objection is that it is a complete renunciation of all
that is embodied in our concept of humanity. Or, simply put, executions degrade us
In today's society, the execution process is far removed from most individual
citizens. We may or may not be aware of the criminal acts that put an individual on
death row-and even then usually only through sensationalized press accounts-but
very few of us know of the human being whom society has condemned to death.
And even fewer of us have ever witnessed, or will ever witness, an actual
execution. This deliberate dehumanization of the whole process makes it much
easier for us to distance ourselves from capital punishment and to accept it "as
something government does," which allows us not to be individually responsible for
the consequences of such actions.
But we are responsible, for our state and federal governments are killing
our names. And we should be made aware of the human side of these executions.
To do so I would like to share with you an extract from an affidavit by David
Bruce, an attorney who stayed with a condemned man, Terry Roach, during the
last hours before his execution and actually witnessed the execution.
I assisted with Terry Roach's defense during the last month before his
and I spent the last four hours with Terry Roach in his cell when he was
electrocuted on January 10, 1986.
Although I have known Terry slightly for several years, meeting him in
of visits to see other inmates on South Carolina's death row, my first long
conversation with Terry occurred less than a month before his death. An execution
date had already been set, and he seemed frightened and very nervous. I was
struck at that time by how obviously mentally retarded Terry was . . . I had known
from following his case through the courts that he had been diagnosed as mildly
mentally retarded, but I was still surprised at his slack-jawed and slow way of
speaking, and at the evident lack of understanding of much of what we were telling
him about the efforts that were underway to persuade Governor Riley to grant
The next time that I would see Terry was on the night of his execution.
who had worked on his case for the past eight years were at the Supreme Court in
Washington, so I had decided to look in on Terry that night after his family had had
to leave for the last time, to see if I could help him with anything or just keep him
company. When I arrived, he had decided to ask me to stay with him through the
night and accompany him when he was taken to the chair. So along with Marie
Deans, a paralegal and counselor who works with condemned prisoners in
Virginia, I stayed.
Although Terry was twenty-five years old by the time of his death, he seemed
childlike. In general, his demeanor and his reactions to the people around him
appeared to me to comport with the finding, made at his last psychological
evaluation, that his IQ was 70-a score that placed his intellectual functioning at
about the level of a twelve-year-old child. When his family minister showed him
some prayers from the Bible that they would read together, Terry asked him which
ones he thought would be especially likely to help him into heaven; his questions
about this seemed based on the childish assumption that one prayer was likely to
"work" better than another, and that he just needed some advice about which ones
would work best. Later in the night, he asked me to read him a long letter about
reincarnation that a man from California had sent to him just that day; he listened to
the letter with wonder, like a small child at bedtime, trusting and uncritical. Both
Marie and I were struck by how calmed Terry seemed by the sound of a voice
reading to him in the resonant cell, and we spent much of the remaining time
reading to him while he listened, gazing at the reader with rapt attention.
He had a final statement which his girlfriend had helped him write. When
that night, the statement was on three small scraps of paper, in his girlfriend's
handwriting. I copied it out for him, and got him to read it out loud a few times. No
matter how many times he tried, the word "enemies" came out "emenies." He kept
practicing it, but pronouncing the written word just seemed beyond his capabilities.
Still, he seemed to like the rehearsal: like everything we did that night, it filled the
time and acknowledged that he was doing something very difficult.
Terry was a very passive young man, and that showed all through the night.
Although he was obviously frightened, he was as cooperative as possible with the
guards, and he tried to pretend that all of the ritual preparation-the shaving of his
head and right leg, the prolonged rubbing in of electrical conducting gel-was all a
normal sort of thing to have happen. He wanted the approval of those around him,
and he seemed well aware that this night he could gain everyone's approval by
being brave and keeping his fear at bay.
Still, when the warden appeared in the cell door at 5:00 a.m. and read
warrant, while Terry stood, each wrist immobilized in a manacle known as the
"claw," his left leg began to shake in large, involuntary movements. After that
everything happened quickly. I walked to the chair with him, and talked to him as
much as I could. He wanted me to read his statement, but I told him that he ought
to try and I'd read it if he couldn't. His voice was only a little shaky, and he
managed quite well, except for "emenies." After he had repeated the name of a
friend of mine who had recently died, and whom he had offered to look up for me
when he got to heaven, I left him and walked to the witness area, where I gave him
a "thumbs-up" sign. He signaled back with his fingers, as much as the straps
permitted. We signaled to each other once more just before the mask was pulled
down over his face.
A few seconds later the current hit. Terry's body snapped back and held
the whole time that the current ran through his body. After a few seconds, steam
began to rise from his body, and the skin on his thighs just above the electrode
began to distend and blister. His fists were clenched and very white. His body
slumped when the power was turned off, and jerked erect again when it resumed.
When he was declared dead, several guards wrestled his body out of the chair and
onto a stretcher, while taking care to conceal his face (no longer covered by the
mask) from the view of the witnesses and me by covering it with a sheet. I left the
death house at about this time in the company of the warden. As we stepped out of
the building, I heard the whoops of a crowd of about 150 or 200 demonstrators
who had apparently come to celebrate the execution, and who were yelling and
cheering outside the prison gates.
Executions degrade us all. They are held in the middle of the night, in
away from us all, to hide what they really are. The men who are condemned to
death are dehumanized by the state and by the press, to make it easier to carry out
their executions. The public is kept as far away as possible from the whole process
to keep them from seeing that human beings, real flesh and blood, real people, are
being put to death. That is the only way that any state or government can continue
with executions without the public demanding their eradication.
Our politicians often leap at the chance that the death penalty gives them
tough on crime. But what they are really doing is playing on the strong feelings of
anxiety, frustration and anger that most people feel towards the seemingly
uncontrollable plague of crime that our country is currently experiencing. However,
such rhetoric in reality detracts from the real work at hand of developing genuine
programs of crime prevention and control. As such, the death penalty becomes the
perfect political red herring-a program that sounds tough on crime and helps to
create a false sense of security, but one that in all reality saps our already limited
There are acceptable alternatives to capital punishment that are more in
the values of our supposedly enlightened and humanistic society. The state is
supposed to be the pillar of our ideals, and its institutions should emulate the best
values of our society. And are not the greatest of these values our compassion, our
concern for human rights, and our capacity for mercy? By continuing to conduct
executions, aren't we undermining the very foundations of our greatness? As
Zimbabwe Poet Chenjerai Hove wrote: "The death sentence is abominable, as
abominable as the crime itself. Our state must be based on love, not hatred and
victimization. Our penal code must be based on rehabilitation rather than
annihilation." For no legal order can sustain itself unless it reflects an underlying
moral order of society.
There are suitable alternatives. Individuals who are a danger to society
removed from society. Society has the right to protect itself, there is no question
about that. If rehabilita-tion is not possible or is not a consideration, then that
removal must be made permanent. But it need not be excessive.
Those who favor the abolition of the death penalty do not advocate releasing
convicted murderers into society. The choice is not between the death penalty and
unconditional release, but between the death penalty and a meaningful life sentence.
Life without the possibility of parole, or natural life sentences, meet the necessary
requirements of society.
Feelings of retribution, vengeance, blood atonement, and the like are difficult
feelings to suppress. Perhaps some individuals "deserve" to die. But in light of
suitable alternatives, such as natural life sentences, is society in general paying too
high a price when it executes its own citizens? Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Thurgood Marshall once wrote: "I cannot agree that the American people have
been so hardened, so embittered that they want to take the life of one who
performs even the basest criminal act knowing that the execution is nothing more
It is time for us to acknow-ledge the death penalty for what it really
is rather than
for what we wish it to be. By rejecting the simple solutions that compromise our
values and undermine the fundamental principles of our society, we maintain the
greatness of our country. For it is certainly true that by giving in to our basest
emotions we lower ourselves to the level of the very persons that we wish to
execute, and in the process weaken the moral fibers that bind and protect our
And while it is admittedly difficult at times, when we recognize the humanity
the vilest criminals, when we acknowledge them as fellow human beings rather than
as objects to be discarded, we pay ourselves the highest of tributes and celebrate
our own humanity.
What can you do to help? There are several organizations working diligently
abolish capital punishment in America. They need your help and support. Please
contact one of the following groups:
Amnesty International USA (Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty) 322 Eighth
Ave.; New York, NY 10001 Telephone 212-807-8400
American Civil Liberties Union (Capital Punishment Project) 122 Maryland
NE Washington, DC 20002 Telephone 202-675-2319
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty 918 "F" Street, NW, 6th
Washington, DC 20004 Telephone 202-347-2510
Catholics Against Capital Punishment P.O. Box #3125; Arlington, VA 22203
Murder Victims Families For Reconciliation 2093 Willow Creek Road; Portage,
IN 46368 Telephone 219-763-2170
Michael Ross is a condemned man on Connecticut's death row. He has been
death row since June 1987. He is currently under a stay of execution pending the
resolution of the appeal process. Michael Ross #127404, Death Row - Somers
Prison, P.O. Box 100, Somers, CT 06071
Fatal Mistakes and the Criminal 'Injustice' System
By Michael Ross and Kurt Rosenberg
"Nothing could be more contrary
to contemporary standards of decency or more shocking to
the conscience than to execute a person who is actually innocent. That comes perilously close
to simple murder." Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun
Generally, Americans know
very little about who is executed and why. And they are blissfully
unaware of the potential dangers of executing an innocent person. Our judicial system relies on a
burden of proof called "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is intended to protect the innocent.
But it is not foolproof.
As the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once wrote: "No
matter how careful the courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony
and human error remain too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been
executed, but we can be certain that there are some."
Perhaps no aspect of the
death penalty troubles the public more than the possible execution of
someone who is innocent. A poll found that fifty-eight percent of Americans are disturbed by the fact
that the death penalty might result in the execution of someone who is innocent. The most conclusive
evidence that innocent persons have been condemned to death comes from examining the large
number of cases of people who were sentenced to die and lucky enough to eventually prove their
innocence and gain release from death row. And, according to a new report by the Death Penalty
Information Center, the danger of an innocent person being put to death is growing.
Since 1973, sixty-nine people,
more than one percent of all death-row prisoners, have been released
from death row after evidence of their innocence surfaced. Seventeen of these condemned prisoners,
including seven from Illinois alone, have been released since 1993. And the pace at which innocent
people have been released over the past three-and-a-half years is almost double the rate from
1973-93, according to the Center. For those quick to credit the criminal justice system for "working"
because these individuals were not executed, it's important to take a close look at such cases. In
many instances, innocence was discovered not because of the normal appeals process but as a result
of new scientific techniques, investigations by journalists, and the tireless work of dedicated
attorneys. None of these resources are available to most death-row prisoners. In Illinois last
summer, murder charges against four men -- two of whom received death sentences -- were
dropped when it was discovered that the wrong men had been convicted.
The investigation was conducted
by three journalism students who had been assigned the case in
class. The increasing number of innocent defendants turning up on death rows across America is a
clear sign that the system is fraught with fundamental errors -- errors which cannot be remedied once
an execution occurs. Says Richard Deiter, the Death Penalty Information Center's executive director,
"The current emphasis on faster executions, less resources for the defense, and an expansion in the
number of death cases mean that the execution of innocent people is inevitable."
The political climate has
caused a dramatic narrowing in death-row prisoners' ability to file appeals
and to raise newly discovered evidence of innocence. Meanwhile, federal funding of legal resource
centers, which helped vindicate some of those who were innocent, has been completely withdrawn.
Some courts have actually said it is permissible for executions to go forward despite serious doubt
about the defendant's guilt.
The DPIC report, which highlights
these issues, is "a serious indictment of the American capital
punishment system," says Alabama lawyer Bryan Stevenson, one of the nation's leading anti-death
penalty attorneys. No one knows the perils of the system better than Stevenson. He was the lawyer
for Walter McMillian, who was released in 1993 after spending nearly six years on Alabama's death
row because of perjured testimony and withheld evidence. McMillian was convicted of the shooting
death of a storekeeper despite the fact that on the day of the murder he was at a fish fry with friends
and relatives, many of whom testified on his behalf. No physical evidence linked him to the crime but
three people who testified at the trial connected him to the murder. All three witnesses received
favors from the state for their incriminating testimony. After listening to a recording of a key witness's
testimony, a volunteer lawyer flipped the tape over to find out if anything was on the other side.
What he heard was complaints from the same witness that he was being pressured to frame Walter
McMillian. With that fortuitous break, the entire case against McMillian began to crumble. Every
element of the prosecution's case has since been discredited, and all three of its witnesses recanted
If the imposition of capital
punishment under any circumstances is a disgrace to a country that
considers itself the standard bearer for human rights, it becomes even more appalling when death
sentences are handed out to those who are innocent. The details of such cases can be lurid and
nightmarish, recalling a time when frontier justice was the rule. Of course, in some places it still is.
In 1980, when the Conroe,
Texas, police department needed a conviction in the case of a white,
16-year-old high school student who was raped and murdered, it chose Clarence Brandley, an
African-American janitor. During an interview of two suspects, a police officer warned, "One of you
is gonna hang for this," then turned to Brandley and said, "Since you're the nigger, you're elected."
After spending a decade on death row and coming within six days of being executed, Brandley was
freed when it was shown the prosecution had suppressed exculpatory evidence and perjured
testimony by its witnesses.
Cases such as Brandley's
support the contention of Samuel Gross, a noted author and researcher at
the University of Michigan Law School who argues that mistakes are actually more likely to occur in
capital cases. When a child is brutally raped and murdered or a police officer is killed, the public
watches day after day until a suspect is produced. Working under tremendous pressure, police and
prosecutors will at times go to any lengths to "solve" a community's most notorious murders. And
when there are no eyewitnesses to a murder, says Gross, the state relies on such unreliable sources
of evidence as accomplices, jailhouse snitches and pressured confessions from the defendant.
Contrary to what the public
-- and most juries -- may believe, a defendant's confession is not a
dependable indicator of guilt. Intense police coercion, or a defendant's mental handicap can easily
lead an innocent suspect to be overly cooperative and to supply information the police want to hear,
information that may well result in a death sentence at trial.
The heinousness of the facts
in a typical death-penalty case can also lead a jury to return a guilty
verdict, according to Gross. Releasing a defendant who is probably guilty (but not guilty beyond a
reasonable doubt) of a brutal slaying is far more difficult than releasing someone who is probably
guilty of a simple misdemeanor. "The steady stream of errors that we see in capital cases in which
defendants are sentenced to death," says Gross, "is a predictable consequence of our system of
investigating and prosecuting capital murder."
Once an innocent defendant
has been convicted and sentenced to death, his chances of eventual
exoneration are poor. After the initial trial, the presumption of innocence is shed and replaced with a
presumption of guilt. The burden falls on the defendant to prove he or she is not guilty, and it is no
longer enough to raise a reasonable doubt. To overturn a conviction, the defendant must produce
"clear and convincing" proof of innocence. The ever-shortening appeals process is not generally
concerned with whether or not the jury made a mistake in the verdict. Instead, it focuses on the legal
procedures during the trial leading up to that verdict.
Almost every death-penalty
state employs stringent time limits on presenting the court with new
evidence of one's innocence. For example, in Virginia a defendant must present new evidence of
innocence within a mere 21 days of his or her conviction for that evidence to be considered by an
appeals court. Any first-year law student will tell you that this is an absurdly small window of time for
even the finest attorney to bring new evidence to light. Of course, like so many condemned
prisoners, Roger Coleman had anything but the finest attorneys, both at trial and for his initial appeal.
On appeal, his new attorneys misread the Virginia statute regarding the time limit for appeals and
filed their appeal one day late. The courts held that the late filing was the same as not filing and
refused to review Coleman's case, despite substantial evidence of his innocence. And the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled that he could not complain that his attorney had erred, because he was not
legally entitled to an attorney after his initial trial. Roger Coleman was executed in 1992, his claims of
innocence ignored. As former Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry so succinctly put it:
"Evidence of innocence is irrelevant."
A year later, the Supreme
Court virtually echoed Terry's shocking but true statement in the Texas
case of Leonel Herrera. Despite compelling evidence that it was not he but his brother Raul who had
killed two police officers, Herrera fell victim to Texas' "30-day rule" for introducing new evidence.
The Supreme Court denied his motion for a new trial, ruling that Herrera's claim of "actual
innocence" was not a constitutional claim, and that the Constitution does not forbid the execution of
an innocent person as long as the original trial was fair. Leonel Herrera's execution on May 12, 1993
makes one wonder what protection the United States Constitution can genuinely offer us if it allows
the execution of someone who is innocent.
Clearly, today's draconian
standards for proving one's innocence are irrelevant if one has a
thoroughly incompetent lawyer . . . or no lawyer at all. When Exzavious Gibson recently appeared
before a Georgia court reviewing his capital conviction, he faced a team of experienced prosecutors
-- by himself. Gibson repeatedly told the judge that he did not know the law and had no attorney to
represent him. Nevertheless, the judge proceeded with the hearing and denied Gibson's appeal. In
the past, Gibson might have been represented by the federally funded Georgia Resource Center. But
last year, federal funding for all 20 death penalty legal resource centers, which provided prisoners
with dedicated attorneys, and helped discover and vindicate a number of innocent people on the
row, was completely withdrawn by Congress.
As a result, the likelihood
that those who are innocent will be executed has increased dramatically.
The estimate that one percent of death-row prisoners is innocent is undoubtedly conservative. Given
the extraordinary resources needed to discover and ultimately free an innocent person from death
row -- which most prisoners do not have access to -- the rate may be considerably higher. And the
well-know study by Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet revealing 416 cases of mistaken convictions
in potentially capital cases since 1900, including 23 executions of innocent people, in all likelihood
also underestimates the pervasiveness of the problem. Stevenson, the Alabama lawyer, says that
"possibly hundreds" of innocent people may be among the more than 3,300 men and women on
death rows across the United States. S
till, says Deiter of the
Death Penalty Information Center, the fact that even one out of 100 death-row
prisoners may be innocent is a disturbing figure, proof that the death-penalty system is, quite literally,
plagued with fatal flaws. "Certainly," he says, "such a record would be totally unacceptable for a car
company whose cars were so defective that they caused fatal crashes in one out of 100 vehicles."
But as long as capital punishment remains a part of our "justice" system, innocent persons will
continue to be executed. It is inevitable. The abolition of the death penalty is the only guaranteed
protection against this tragedy.
-Michael Ross has been on
Connecticut's death row for almost a decade and plans to waive
his appeals. Kurt Rosenberg is national coordinator of the Friends Committee to Abolish the
His name Is Michael Ross, and his address is DEATH ROW. He writes: "I am
worst of the worst on my unit. I have killed more people by my hand than the rest of
the prisoners here on Death Row combined. Yet, by God’s grace, today I experience
more peace of mind and more true freedom than all these men. I'm not talking about
physical freedom. My freedom transcends the physical world. It is a freedom that few
understand; in fact, many here mock me when I speak about it. The freedom that I
have experienced can only be achieved through the grace of God. I am grateful that
God has forgiven the crimes I have committed against humanity. Whether the families of
my victims will ever forgive me I do not know, though I pray they can. I do know that
God has taught me to forgive those who injured me, and therein lies much of the
freedom I have experienced.
An unwanted child. My mother was pregnant at 16 and abortion was not an
she married a man she did not love and bore a child she did not want. She had been
abused as a child and as is so common, became an abuser. I was the brunt of her
abuse. Later, in prison, I slowly came to realize that the anger I was harboring toward
my mother was destroying my soul. We can find inner peace only when we realize that
we must change ourselves rather than the people who have hurt us. I wish that I could
tell you the process of forgiving was easy, that because I wanted to forgive, magically I
was able to forgive. The anger and pain I was carrying along with bitterness, despair,
and self hate.
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