The Death Penalty Is Too Broken To Be Fixed

Joseph Wood gulped for air like a fish on land for two hours, according to a media witness who watched his execution in Arizona on July 23. That could have been me.

I spent more than 10 years in Arizona prisons for a crime I didn’t commit, including almost three years on death row.

I’m a lifelong Republican. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania playing Little League Baseball and Pee Wee Football. I served six years in the U.S. Air Force. I was honorably discharged, steadily employed, and had no criminal history.

Before this happened to me, I supported the death penalty. Fry ‘em. They don’t deserve to live. All that sounds different when people are talking about you and you were at home asleep at the time of a brutal murder.

In 1992, I was convicted of killing a barmaid in Phoenix where I sometimes played darts. Because of a car accident as a kid, I had crooked front teeth. The police questioned me and asked me to bite into Styrofoam. At my trial, and then my retrial, a so-called expert said that my teeth marks on the Styrofoam matched the teeth marks on the victim’s body.

The police had tunnel vision on me, but if the crime lab had bothered to submit hair and blood samples or fingerprints to the national data banks, the evidence could have shown that someone else committed the crime. The same people who are running the DMV are in charge of the death penalty.

The second time I was found guilty, the judge sentenced me to life in prison because he was unsure if I was the killer. It wasn’t until 2002 that a DNA test, which the state opposed, showed I couldn’t have committed the murder and in fact identified who did. Faced with the fact that I had been convicted of murder – twice – even though I was innocent, the District Attorney said, “We will try to do better.”

Wrongful convictions are more common than we’d like to believe. Since 1973, 144 people have been exonerated and freed from death row with evidence of their innocence. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that more than four percent of death sentences – 1 in 25 – are imposed on innocent people.

As co-founder of Witness to Innocence, I’ve talked with people who were coerced into false confessions, tried by prosecutors who illegally withheld evidence, or had cellmates who lied about them on the witness stand because the State promised a lighter sentence. The government came at them with seemingly unlimited resources. The only thing they were guilty of was not being able to afford a lawyer.