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Opinion: Even in Utah, murder cases sometimes convict the innocent

The Beehive State cannot continue to risk executing the innocent by retaining the death penalty

The observation cell that a death row inmate stays in during the final hours before an execution.
The observation cell that a death row inmate stays in during the final hours before an execution, as seen during a media tour of the execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper Monday, June 11, 2001.
Jason Olson, Deseret News

The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center works to correct wrongful convictions in Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming. The center also advocates for reforms that address the systemic causes of wrongful convictions — mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, unreliable forensic science, official misconduct and poor lawyering.

Our policy agenda includes win-win reforms that protect the innocent and help identify the guilty. It is the dual nature of our work — both the efforts to exonerate the innocent and the constructive efforts to strengthen the criminal justice system — that informs our position that the death penalty in Utah should be repealed.

To date, 2,872 imprisoned men and women have been proven innocent nationwide. One hundred eighty-six of the people exonerated had been sentenced to death. These post-conviction cases demonstrate that the risk of convicting an innocent is much greater than even the most cynical expected, and it naturally follows that the risk of executing an innocent person is greater than previously believed.

Unfortunately, DNA does not solve this problem. In the most serious crimes, criminalists estimate DNA testable evidence exists in less than 10% of cases. Most homicide cases turn on eyewitness testimony, confessions, the credibility of witnesses or circumstantial evidence — not DNA evidence.

As such, DNA testing is not a panacea that can prevent wrongful executions. Although DNA has helped us to shed light on the existence of wrongful convictions across the nation, it simply does not have the capacity to ensure either a fair or accurate application of the irreversible sentence of death.

Eighteen individuals have been exonerated after Utah’s criminal justice system failed them. Among the 18 is Debra Brown, who was charged with capital murder in 1993. She spent over 18 years in prison before the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center and pro bono attorneys, Alan Sullivan and Chris Martinez, were able to bring her home to her family.

Although no one has yet been exonerated from Utah’s death row, the center filed a DNA testing petition for one of the individuals currently on Utah’s death row, only to learn that the DNA testable evidence had been lost or destroyed. This man, who has always maintained his innocence, claims to have falsely confessed under intensive police pressure.

Further, paid informants testified about his involvement in the crime but lied about the benefit they received for their testimony. Utah is not immune to flaws in the criminal justice system that are often highlighted in post-conviction innocence claims.

Perhaps the most significant lesson to be learned in matters of crime, punishment and the pursuit of justice, is humility. Errors of commission, omission and bias occur in our legal system every day. Perfection is unattainable, but we must be diligent in the pursuit of justice.

Since its inception, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center has reviewed thousands of cases. In some, after having pored over reams of court transcripts, scrutinized piles of police reports, dissected crime lab analyses, sifted through evidence and property logs and studied scores of witness statements, we have strongly suspected guilt, only later to discover we were wrong. No less often, someone we strongly suspect is innocent turns out to be guilty.

Every one of us is human. If just one person makes an error from investigation to trial, jumps to a conclusion or acts on a false assumption, an innocent person can be condemned to a guilty person’s fate. The finality of the death penalty circumvents the discovery of truth and potentially robs innocent people of their lives. Utah cannot continue to risk executing the innocent by retaining the death penalty.

Jensie Anderson is a clinical professor of law and the director of the Innocence Clinic at S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. She has also been on the board of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center since 1999.