US man walks free after lifetime on death row

An innocent 64-year-old has been released from prison, after spending over a quarter of a century behind bars. Will his long-overdue release renew calls to abolish the death penalty?

After 30 years spent languishing on death row, a US prisoner wrongly accused of murder finally walked onto the streets of Louisiana this week as a free man.

Glenn Ford was convicted in 1984, making him one of the longest serving inmates on death row to be exonerated. New information emerged at the end of last year which proved that Ford was not involved in the killing of a local jeweller.

It is a bitter-sweet ending to a terrible tale. Ford told reporters it ‘felt good’ to be free, but he also harboured resentment: ‘I can’t go back and do anything that I should’ve been doing when I was 35,’ he said. ‘My sons, when I left, was babies. Now they grown men with babies.’

The original case, like so many resulting in a death sentence, was flawed. No murder weapon was ever found and there were no eyewitnesses. Even more shocking, Ford’s lawyers had never defended a murder suspect before, and Ford, a black man, was convicted by an all-white jury.

Some people believe the death penalty is never justified, partly because criminal justice systems are not infallible. Michael Mansfield, a prominent British lawyer, represented both the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four — two of the worst miscarriages of justice in recent British history. These innocent men and women, wrongly imprisoned as terrorists, would have been executed had the UK not abolished the death penalty in 1965. The cases reaffirmed for many the dangers of the death penalty.

Yet support for the ‘ultimate sanction’ continues. When Ian Huntley was arrested for the 2003 Soham murders, a YouGov opinion poll showed that 63% of the population believed he should be executed. Popular support for the death penalty surged again in the wake of the murder of Lee Rigby outside Woolwich barracks last year.

Dead end

Will the appalling ordeal suffered by Ford force the American people to doubt their faith in the death penalty? Some believe that times and attitudes are changing, even in America. Last year Maryland became the sixth US state in the same number of years to abandon capital punishment. With a disproportionate number of poor, young, black men ending up on death row, reformers argue this violates the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection for all citizens.

But in spite of errors made by judges and juries, many still argue that justice systems have a duty to deliver retribution on behalf of the people. Even some US presidents have shown their support in the past by arguing in favour of the death penalty. If the principle of extracting the ultimate price has the backing of the White House, can we expect courthouses across the states to take a different course?

You Decide

  1. ‘Because there will always be miscarriages of justice, no state should execute convicted prisoners.’ Do you agree?
  2. Can you imagine any circumstances under which you would support the death penalty?

Activities

  1. In the classroom, one wall represents being strongly in favour of the death penalty, the opposite wall, strongly against. Spread yourself out between the walls in accordance with your opinions, but be prepared to justify your position.
  2. Pretend you are Glenn Ford’s lawyer, and write a speech on his behalf explaining why his case demonstrates that the death penalty should be abolished.

Some People Say...

“More people would be alive today if there were a death penalty.’Nancy Reagan”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is there any chance that the death penalty could return to the UK?
It seems unlikely, but in 2011 there were increasing calls for a debate on whether to reinstate the death penalty after the Restore Justice campaign claimed that half the population were in favour of it. If, at the time, a petition on the issue had reached 100,000 signatures, it would have been debated in parliament. In the end, the petition only gained 26,000 supporters.
Why do prisoners spend so long on death row?
The appeals process can take a long time, and every avenue must be exhausted before an execution. But living in a state of constant anxiety can lead to mental health problems among inmates, and this constitutes a form of cruel and unusual punishment — prohibited under the US Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Word Watch

Michael Mansfield
A self-described ‘radical lawyer’, he has been involved in some of the most high-profile and important cases in the UK, including the inquest into the deaths of Dodi al Fayed and Diana Princess of Wales.
Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four
Six men were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for the Birmingham pub bombings which killed 21 people. It was the most deadly attack in the UK since the second world war. The Guildford Four were similarly wrongly convicted of terrorist bombings carried out by the IRA. Their convictions were reversed in 1989, but they had already spent nearly 17 years behind bars.
Reaffirmed
The former home secretary, Michael Howard, admitted that these two cases changed his mind about the death penalty: ‘I accepted that you could never completely eliminate the chance of a mistake and since then I have been averse to the idea of the state deliberately taking someone’s life.’
Soham murders
Huntley murdered two 10-year-olds, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, in 2002.
Disproportionate
Of all those on death row, 42% are black, but blacks make up fewer than 15% of the population.
Presidents
Some people are convinced that Bill Clinton secured his 1992 election by approving the execution of Ricky Ray Rector — a man so severely brain damaged that he allegedly saved half of his last meal — pecan pie — ‘for later’.

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