2000: Frank Lee Smith is posthumously exonerated — he’d died 11 months earlier — 14 years after being convicted of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl. The eyewitnesses were wrong.
2001: Charles Fain is exonerated and set free 18 years after being sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a young girl. The scientific testimony was wrong.
2002: Ray Krone is exonerated and set free 10 years after being sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a bar worker. The scientific testimony was wrong.
2003: John Thompson is exonerated and set free 18 years after being sentenced to death for murder. The prosecutors hid exculpatory scientific evidence and the eyewitnesses were wrong.
2004: Ryan Matthews is exonerated and set free five years after being sentenced to death for killing a convenience store owner. The eyewitnesses were wrong.
2008: Kennedy Brewer is exonerated and set free seven years after being sentenced to death for killing his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter. The scientific testimony was wrong.
2010: Anthony Graves is exonerated and set free 18 years after being sentenced to death for the murder of an entire family. The sole eyewitness —who was himself the murderer — lied.
I could make a much longer list.
There are literally hundreds, of men and even a few women who have been exonerated and set free after being sentenced to death, life, 25, 60, even 400 years for awful things they did not do. I could make a longer list, but space is at a premium and there is more that needs saying here.
They killed Troy Davis Wednesday night.
He went to his death still proclaiming his innocence of the 1989 murder of a Savannah, Ga., police officer. Davis was convicted on “evidence” that boiled down to the testimony of nine eyewitnesses, seven of whom later recanted.
But Spencer Lawton, who originally prosecuted the case, would not want you to worry your head about that. Hours before Davis was put to death, Lawton was quoted by CNN as saying he had no doubts about the case and was confident Davis was the killer. How much do you want to bet the prosecutors of Fain, Brewer, Krone or any of those hundreds of others would have said the same thing, expressed the same confidence? Without that confidence, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
Meaning the death penalty, a flimsy edifice erected on the shaky premise that we always get it right, that human systems always work as designed, that witnesses make no mistakes, that science is never fallible, that cops never lie, that lawyers are never incompetent.
You have to believe that. You have to make yourself believe it. Otherwise, how do you sleep at night?
So of course a prosecutor speaks confidence. What else is he going to speak? Truth? Truth is too big, too dangerous, too damning. Truth asks a simple question: In what field of endeavor have we always gotten it right? And you know the answer to that.
So truth is too pregnant for speaking. Better to avert your eyes and profess your confidence.
But one day, too late for Troy Davis, too late for too many, truth will out. Godspeed that day the cards come tumbling down.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.