Anti–death penalty advocate Shujaa Graham, who was exonerated from death row in California, reacts to Maryland's recent death penalty ban. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Recently I was at the State House in Annapolis when Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley made history, erasing a centuries-old practice with the stroke of a pen. On May 2, O’Malley signed a law repealing the death penalty, making it the eighteenth state to abolish capital punishment as well as the sixth state in six years—after New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Illinois and Connecticut.
Standing with me were two men with a very personal stake in the governor’s actions: Kirk Bloodsworth and Shujaa Graham, both of whom had been exonerated. They are just two of the 142 death row prisoners over the past forty years who have been released because they were innocent: Graham was number twenty, and Bloodsworth was number forty-eight. Along with organizers and lawmakers, many of these exonerated death row survivors—who spend an average of ten years on death row for crimes they did not commit—are leading the charge to halt executions throughout America.
“I killed the thing that almost killed me,” Bloodsworth proclaimed after the governor signed the bill. For Bloodsworth, ending the death penalty has been a twenty-eight-year mission. In 1985, as an honorably discharged former marine with a clean record, he was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton in Baltimore County. Bloodsworth’s conviction was overturned in 1986 amid news that the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence; he was then retried and sentenced to life. Ultimately, DNA evidence freed Bloodsworth, but not before he had spent nine years in Baltimore’s infamous Maryland Penitentiary, including two years on death row. (The real killer had occupied a cell one floor beneath Bloodsworth’s.) He was the first US death row inmate exonerated by genetic fingerprinting technology. Today, he is the advocacy director of Witness to Innocence, the group I lead, a national organization of exonerated death row survivors.
Meanwhile, Shujaa Graham and co-defendant Eugene Allen, who are black, were framed for the murder of a white correctional officer in Deuel Vocational Institution near Stockton, California. Graham, who grew up on a plantation in Jim Crow–era Louisiana, moved to California with his family, got caught up in a gang and the juvenile justice system and landed in Soledad Prison at 18. While institutionalized, Graham taught himself to read and write. He was mentored by the Black Panthers and became a political activist in the black prison movement. For that, he was framed for murder.
In 1976, after a mistrial three years earlier, Graham and Allen were sentenced to death by an all-white jury and sent to San Quentin’s death house. In 1979, the California Supreme Court overturned his death sentence because the prosecutor had excluded African-Americans from the jury. Graham was acquitted and released in 1981—“in spite of the system,” as he emphasizes.
Now a resident of Takoma Park, Maryland, and the vice chair of Witness to Innocence, Graham tempered his approval of the bill signing: “I view this as a partial victory,” he said, noting that although the death penalty has been abolished in Maryland, the inherent problems of the criminal justice system remain. Capital punishment is only the tip of the iceberg.
But abolition in Maryland, which has executed more than 300 people, is important. It is the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to abolish the death penalty. With its troubled history of violence and racism, the South accounts for 80 percent of the executions in America.
Innocence, of course, is just one reason to end these executions. The death penalty is a punishment for the poor, disproportionately people of color, and it is reserved for those who cannot afford the best justice money can buy. Often, these people are represented by overworked, inexperienced or abjectly incompetent attorneys. They are caught in a “McJustice” system that prioritizes expediency and finality over fairness; it resolves questions of guilt or innocence by pushing plea bargains. The stakes are high, yet the standards are so low.
Encouragingly, death sentences are on the decline. Last year saw the second-lowest number of new death sentences since 1976, with Florida, California, Texas and Alabama accounting for 65 percent of the total. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia had no executions at all in 2012. The same year, nine states executed people, with four—Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arizona—accounting for roughly three-quarters of the total.
Meanwhile, in the midst of a global trend toward death penalty abolition—currently only one in ten countries performs executions—the United States still claims membership in the small cadre of nations carrying out capital punishment. America is surpassed only by China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in the number of state-sponsored killings.
Faced with the brutality of the death penalty, as well as its ineffectiveness, dysfunction, exorbitant cost, incessant risk of killing innocent people and violation of human rights, other states will follow Maryland’s example. At a time of so many unjust laws that degrade human personality, as Dr. King would say, Maryland’s lawmakers—influenced by the power of innocence—have chosen a policy that promotes human dignity.
In February, Jordan Smith looked at the case of Larry Swearingen, who maintains his innocence while awaiting his execution on Texas's death row.