Declining executions could become obsolete in US by 2025, advocate says

Exonerated death row inmate tells Al Jazeera that mistakes will happen when lives are put in 'human hands'

Reggie Griffin was formally exonerated in October after spending four years on death row.
Charlie Riedel/AP Images

Reginald "Reggie" Griffin thought for four years that he would be executed by the state of Missouri on a murder charge that authorities dismissed only this year, decades after sentencing.  

On Oct. 25, a Missouri judge ruled that the two inmates who had testified against Griffin had not provided sufficient evidence to indicate he had fatally stabbed fellow inmate James Bausely in 1983.

One of the two informants, according to local anti-death-penalty advocates, had recanted what had been accepted as an eyewitness testimony of the murder, saying he had not actually seen Griffin stab Bausely. The informant, who was reportedly anxious for prison guards to protect him from sexual abusers at Missouri’s Moberly prison, was transferred after initially naming Griffin as the murderer, according to the group Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. 

“One (of the informants) — I didn’t even know he was in the same prison,” Griffin told Al Jazeera. 

In 1988, when he was sentenced to death, a lack of physical evidence appeared not to matter, Griffin said.

“Once the state makes up their minds you’ve done it, it doesn’t matter what the evidence says. That’s what they go with,” he said.

Griffin was left to ready himself for the inevitable.

“You’re on death row,” he said. “Everyone around you is on death row. You see them come and take people away scheduled to be executed. You know you’re not going to see them again. I guess you can say you have to prepare yourself for the possibility it’s going to happen to me.”

But in little over a decade’s time, stories like Griffin’s may become a thing of the past, some anti-death-penalty advocates believe. Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), told Al Jazeera he estimates it is “within the realm of possibility” that the death penalty could be outlawed in the United States within the next 12 years.

In 2005, when the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for minors, 30 states had already prohibited the practice. The fact that a majority of states had banned it led the justices to rule it cruel and unusual punishment.

“Right now, we have 18 states that have abolished the death penalty,” Dieter said. “The rate is currently that one or so states have been abolishing the death penalty (every year) for years.”

Dieter said the abolition trend may pick up momentum in coming years.

“If states start sensing it’s on its way out, they wouldn’t want to be the last one hanging on,” he said. He added that as a number of countries continue to abolish the death penalty internationally, the U.S. may feel compelled to review the practice.

“The U.S. does not want to be the last country with regular executions,” Dieter said.

A DPIC study released Thursday revealed that in 2013, for the second time in 19 years, there were fewer than 40 executions across the nation. This year, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish the death penalty. Support for the death penalty has dropped to 60 percent, according to Gallup, which the DPIC noted is a 40-year low.

The study observed that there was a high number of execution stays in 2013. At least 33 cases were postponed, without clemency.

“In the last few years, executions have been slowed in large part due to the governments’ search for a new cocktail of drugs to use in executions,” said Cynthia Short, the lawyer at McCallister Law Firm who represented Griffin.

Short explained that new cocktails are at various stages of approval in various states. Missouri has already chosen a new drug protocol “despite continued controversy.”

“This may open the floodgates,” she said. This year, Missouri executed two inmates after years without implementing the death penalty.

Still, Dieter said the trend is “broader than the lethal injection factor — it’s a factor, … (but) it’s the broader trends that are indicative of declining use” of the death penalty.

The DPIC’s report was revised after the state of Oklahoma executed Johnny Dale Black, 48, on Tuesday after he was convicted of fatally stabbing an elderly man.

In a statement shortly after Black’s execution, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the inmate was “sentenced to death by a jury of his peers for the murder of an innocent grandfather and upstanding member of the community.”

Asked how he felt about the death penalty, Pruitt told Al Jazeera, “Under Oklahoma law, the death penalty is the ultimate punishment available for the most serious of crimes. When a jury finds that an offender has committed a crime that is so heinous as to deserve the death penalty, it is my responsibility as attorney general to ensure the sentence is carried out, and that victims’ families receive justice.”

But advocates for an end to executions say the risk of sending an innocent person to the grave in the case of a flawed conviction in a capital case outweighs any defense of the practice by the pro-execution lobby.

In October, Griffin became the 143rd person since 1973 to be exonerated after being sentenced to death row, according to the DPIC report.

He now makes minimum wage at a part-time janitor job. He and his wife, whom he met as a teenager and reunited with while she visited a family member at the same prison, still think about having children. “(But) I’m not 25 anymore,” said Griffin, now 53.  

Perhaps understandably, Griffin is still of the opinion that the legal system is “broken.” Regardless of when and if the Supreme Court takes on the death penalty, he is sure “there are plenty of people before and after me who will go through the same thing I went through.”

“When you put another person’s life in human hands, there are plenty of mistakes to be made.”

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