A sentence too close to death
- A VERY POWERFUL POST!
From the Los Angeles Times
A sentence too close to death
Wrongly convicted, I am proof that the state should reconsider
By Harold Hall
March 27, 2008
Ialmost died for someone else's crime. Had the jury listened to the
prosecutor, I would have been sent to death row, and even might have
been executed by now. Instead, I spent nearly 20 years in prison
before new evidence proved my innocence and I was able to walk away a
I'm far from the only one who lost decades of my life wrongfully
imprisoned. Dozens like me have been exonerated by DNA or other new
evidence. Just last week, 56-year-old Willie Earl Green was released
in Los Angeles after the sole eyewitness in his case recanted. He'd
done 24 years of a 33-year-to-life sentence at San Quentin.
I was 18 years old in 1985 when the police in South L.A. arrested me
for a double homicide and rape. I was interrogated for 17
excruciating hours, handcuffed to a chair and denied food and water.
The police claimed that they had evidence proving my guilt. I was
young and scared and desperate to stop the abuse -- so I told the
police what they wanted to hear. I was wrongfully convicted based on
that coerced confession and the false testimony of a jailhouse
The jury sentenced me to life in prison without parole. Some might
say I was lucky; I had escaped the executioner's needle.
But after spending nearly 20 years in a living hell, I can't really
see it that way. No matter which prison I was in -- Lancaster,
Folsom, Corcoran -- I was under constant surveillance, stripped of
any privacy or autonomy. I was at the mercy of the prison guards, who
could make my life as miserable as they wished. I lived in constant
fear of prison lockdowns, which could last for months; we would not
be allowed out of our cells and could take only "bird baths" in the
I refused to let my family visit me. Contact with the outside world
had become unbearable. I didn't want to hear stories of family
outings or other outside news. That life was over unless I could
prove my innocence. I had not been sentenced to execution, but I had
been sentenced to die in prison.
Because I was sentenced to life without parole, exoneration was my
only chance for release. I repeatedly asked for DNA testing of the
evidence in my case, but for years my request was denied by the
courts. In 2003, a court looked again at the jailhouse informant and
granted me a new trial. As a result, the DNA evidence was finally
tested, proving my innocence. In 2004, I was finally free.
I returned to Los Angeles a very different man. Living in prison
without hope of parole is a horrible punishment that breaks a person
down. I maintained my sanity, but I met inmates who would gladly have
accepted execution rather than continue living in those conditions.
As horrible as this sentence is, it does give the state an
opportunity for redemption: When an inmate like me proves his
innocence, at least the state can set him free. No one can give me
back those 19 years of my life, but I am thankful I am here today.
Ruben Cantu was not so lucky. Cantu was just 26 when Texas executed
him in 1993. Now, even the prosecutor who sent Cantu to his death
thinks that he was probably innocent, the victim of mistaken
eyewitness identification and a court system that sacrifices accuracy
in the name of efficiency. We know that 127 innocent men and women
have been freed from death rows in the U.S. since 1973. What we will
never know is how many innocent people have been executed.
On Friday, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of
Justice will hold its third and final hearing about problems with the
state's death penalty, including the length of appeals, access to
lawyers and wrongful convictions. The commission will then begin
three months of deliberations and draft a report to the Legislature.
Among the questions the commission must grapple with is this: Can
California's broken death penalty be fixed, and if so, at what price?
But given all the problems -- and the stakes -- the commission should
tell the Legislature, and the people of California, that it is time
to reconsider whether we need to seek executions at all.
We have an alternative. Sentencing people to die in prison of old age
and illness punishes without pretending that we have a foolproof
legal system. I'm a living example that we don't. Sadly, Ruben Cantu
cannot say the same.
Harold Hall works for the Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments
Program of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times ._,_.___
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