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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Executions: Troy Davis (2011) versus Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1936)

    On September 28, a week after Troy Davis was executed in Georgia for the 1989 murder in Savanna of an off-duty police officer, I was interviewed by Dillon Rand for the radio show "You Are Here" broadcast out of Boston on 88.9 FM. Rand asked if there had ben enough evidence in the Lindbergh case to justify the execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann. In response, I laid out the physical evidence against the defendant and said I believed the state of New Jersey, on April 3, 1936, electrocuted the right man. (New Jersey has since abolished the death penalty.)

     Hauptmann was convicted on physical evidence connecting him to the ransom letters and the kidnap ladder. Troy Davis, on the other hand, had been convicted on the testimony of nine eyewitnesses who said they saw him shoot officer Mark MacPhail on the Burger King parking lot. There was no physical evidence--DNA, fingerprints or ballistics--linking Davis to the homicide. Not only is eyewitness testimony notoriously unreliable, in the Davis case, seven of the nine eyewitnesses later recanted their testimony.

     We have a criminal justice system that acquits O. J. Simpson and Casey Anthony while convicting murder defendants solely on the testimony of eyewitnesses and jailhouse informants. Because our system of justice, as applied, is so unreliable, the death sentence, as a matter of policy, is not a good idea. Since 1975, of the 138 defendants sentenced to death then later exonerated, thirty-two had been convicted in whole or in part on eyewitness testimony. While I'm not familiar enough with the Davis case to have a strong opinion regarding his guilt or innocence, I'm pretty sure his case will make justifying the death penalty significantly more difficult.

     The radio show will air from 7 to 8 AM on Sunday, October 2. It can be streamed live online at http://www.wers.org/

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