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Another Execution Over A Questioned Crime

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Was Tookie Williams Framed?

(PNS) -- In an interview with investigative reporter Jasmyne Cannick and myself, Stanley "Tookie" Williams vehemently denied that he committed the four murders that put him on death row for 24 years. But speculation about Williams' guilt or innocence will continue after his death, as it has for many other inmates executed by the state.

. The evidence was shaky enough that two California Supreme Court justices and a handful of dissenting judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals voted for a second look at his conviction.

Williams is hardly the first case in which doubts have been raised about whether a possibly innocent person has been executed. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a scattering of federal appeals judges have voiced those doubts about whether some innocent persons have been executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. A team of university researchers have fingered more than two-dozen cases in which men have been executed who may have been innocent.

All these cases show deeply troubling similarities. The Innocence Project has noted that overzealous and untruthful prosecutors have suppressed, fabricated and destroyed evidence, and employed lying jailhouse snitches and other unreliable witnesses. Many of the cases have been riddled with racial bias. The condemned killer was black or Latino and their alleged victim was white; the jury, oftentimes, is not racially diverse. When defense attorneys appeal these tainted convictions, the courts almost always dismiss their appeals on the grounds that the prosecutor committed "harmless errors" that didn't affect the outcome of the case.

The Texas execution of Ruben Cantu in 1993 for a murder he allegedly committed as a teen-ager was a near-textbook example of how a possibly innocent man can be put to death. The case had all the slipshod legal ingredients -- a jailhouse informant's testimony, a dubious witness, a threadbare defense and sloppy police investigation. It took a decade to get more of the truth out, but Cantu is now viewed as probably innocent. The surviving victim recanted his identification and an inmate involved in the killing signed a confession that Cantu did not commit the crime.

In Cantu's case and in the cases of the other possibly innocent condemned men who were executed, state and federal appeals courts routinely rejected their appeals. But some judges publicly and privately had questions -- not about the actual guilt or innocence of the men, but whether prosecutors and courts followed proper legal procedures and if the defendants got a fair trial. Their doubts were not enough for them to overturn their convictions or stay the executions. In every doubtful case, prosecutors hotly denied that any of the men executed were innocent.

Despite the questionable executions, no prosecutor or government official has ever officially said that an innocent prisoner has been executed. But some officials and judges have strongly hinted and warned that it could happen. In 1997, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee praised the system of legal checks and balances in place to insure the rights of condemned killers, but admitted that there was no ironclad guarantee that an innocent person could not be put to death.

In 2000, Boston federal appeals court Judge Mark L. Wolf, in a case involving a Massachusetts man charged with multiple murders, sent a shockwave through the federal judiciary when he flatly said that there was strong evidence that some innocent persons may have been executed. He did not mention the names of those he thought may been innocent, but pointed to the dozens of men who have been freed from death row based on DNA tests, the recanting of damning testimony by witness and jailhouse informants and other evidence. The Justice Department, however, stuck to its guns and insisted that it went strictly by the legal book to insure the fair and consistent application of the death penalty. It denied that an innocent man could or had been executed, at least by the feds.

The frank admission by Britain, Russia and other countries that innocents have been legally killed, and the persistent denial by prosecutors in the United States that innocents could or have been executed here will likely have no bearing on Tookie Williams' fate. Following Williams' execution by lethal injection, official records will say that courts and prosecutors fully followed all legal and constitutional procedures. But doubts about his guilt or innocence will linger on. They have for at least two-dozen others who have been executed and who were possibly innocent.

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Albion Monitor December 12, 2005 (

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