They were innocent and on death row. Now, the exonerated want to ensure Biden keeps pledge

Author : bangjosh
Publish Date : 2021-03-21 14:45:25


They were innocent and on death row. Now, the exonerated want to ensure Biden keeps pledge

(CNN)Sabrina Smith was only 17 when a predominately White Mississippi jury convicted her in 1989 for fatally beating her 9-month-old son.

"The judge said, 'we sentence you to death by lethal injection. May God have mercy on your soul,'" she recalled. "All I could say was, 'may God have mercy on your soul because you don't know what you just did.'"
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Eyewitness testimony and medical evidence that was produced during the first trial would later reveal that Smith's baby died from kidney disease.
Still, Smith served six years in prison, including nearly three years on death row. Clive Strafford Smith, an attorney and a co-founder of Reprieve, a nonprofit legal organization, was able to get her conviction overturned and, after a second trial, she was acquitted of all charges.

"State-sanctioned murder is not justice, and the death penalty, which kills Black and brown people disproportionately, has absolutely no place in our society," Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley said in a January letter to then attorney general nominee Merrick Garland. "Ending the federal death penalty -- which is as cruel as it is ineffective in deterring crime -- is a racial justice issue. It's time to truly move our country in the direction of justice and healing."

Legal experts and advocates say Smith's case is emblematic of the larger issues that plague the criminal justice system, especially for Black and brown people. In Smith's case, she was sitting on death row before she was granted a new trial to clear her name.

A recent study by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) revealed that in two-thirds of overturned death row convictions, official misconduct, perjury or false accusations played a role in 70.7% of Black and 93.8% of Latino exonerees' cases.
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The DPIC announced in February that since the 1970s, 185 people, who received death sentences, were wrongfully convicted. Among them are: 66 White men and one White woman, 16 Latinos, one Native American or Alaska Native, two identified as other and 97 Black men and one Black woman -- Smith.
Former death row inmates, who were convicted of crimes they did not commit, have been using their voices to reform the justice system. They've joined hundreds of lawmakers to call on President Joe Biden to reform the justice system and abolish the controversial death penalty.

During his campaign, Biden pledged to reform the criminal justice system, including the death penalty. The abolishment of the controversial sentence is listed within his plans of "Eliminating Racial Disparities and Ensuring Fair Sentences" section.

Prior to former Attorney General William Barr reinstating the federal death penalty in July 2019, there hadn't been any executions scheduled since 2003. The Justice Department has repeatedly declined to comment on why the moratorium was lifted.

Legal attempts to stop executions were exhausted by July 2020. Under the watch of former President Donald Trump, the lethal injection deaths of 12 men and one woman went according to plan and ended within days of Biden's inauguration in January.

Of those executions, the circumstances of the cases for Brandon Bernard and Lisa Montgomery drove anti-death penalty advocates, lawmakers, civil rights leaders and celebrity Kim Kardashian West to try and convince Trump to stop these proceedings.

Bernard -- 18 at the time of the crime -- was not the gunman and Montgomery -- the first woman killed by the federal government in nearly 70 years -- suffered severe mental illness that stemmed from a history of abuse, their attorneys separately argued.
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"Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government's example. These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole," according to Biden's "Plan for Strengthening America's Commitment to Justice."

Led by Pressley and Illinois Rep. Dick Durbin, lawmakers have introduced legislation and cosigned letters to the Biden administration and Garland, expressing their imperative reasons why the death penalty on the federal and state level should end immediately.

Smith and Kwame Ajamu, who both work as motivational speakers for Witness to Innocence, a nonprofit organization that rehabilitates and empowers former death row survivors, cosigned a letter with over 80 other nationally recognized criminal justice and civil rights advocacy organizations. The letter was delivered to Biden urging him to abolish the death penalty. Witness to Innocence was founded by anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean.

Since the six-month federal execution spree of 13 men and a woman ended on January 16, there haven't been any scheduled federal executions -- but state-sanctioned executions in Ohio and Texas are calendared into April 2024.

Racial disparities and wrongful convictions

Biden's reasoning for stopping the death penalty is also in part because of the number of men and women who have been exonerated after receiving a death sentence. Garland testified during his Senate confirmation hearing last month that the number of people in death penalty cases who were exonerated gave him "pause" on his views of the practice.
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"The fact of the matter is that these death sentences are not about justice ... Like slavery and lynching did before it, the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence, and state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities," according to January 22 letter to Biden that was cosigned on behalf of 35 members of Congress.
The White House has not commented on the death penalty since January 25 when Press Secretary Jen Pskai said Biden is "opposed" to the practice. To end the federal death penalty, legal advocates like Miriam Krinsky with Fair and Just Prosecution have said Biden can end it with a stroke of a pen at any time.

"The president has the unilateral, Constitutional power to change the sentences of every man and woman on federal death row to life sentences. He could do this in a matter of minutes, with a few strokes of his pen," Krinsky told CNN in a previous interview.
The White House did not provide an update on Biden's death penalty pledge. The Justice Department deferred to Garland's responses from his confirmation hearing.
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https://www.guest-articles.com/news/they-were-innocent-and-on-death-row-now-the-exonerated-want-to-ensure-biden-keeps-pledge-21-03-2021
Wrongful convictions and wrongful convictions connected to the death penalty have stark racial disparities when you consider that Black and Latino people make up 13.4% and 18.5% of the US population, respectively, according to the US Census Bureau.
"My very first argument against capital punishment is the fairness of it. When you cannot make something as atrocious as taking a human life for a crime against humanity and society, fair, you should not do it," Ajamu, who is the chairman of the board for Witness to Innocence, said.



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