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As a teenager growing up in Chicago, Mario Flores was a champion diver with scholarship offers from various colleges.
But his Olympic hopes were derailed on November 10, 1984, when he was charged with a gang-related murder following a car accident on New Year's morning in the city's Humboldt Park neighborhood. Even though no physical evidence linked him to the crime and he wasn't even charged until almost a year later, Flores was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death-largely based on the testimony of two other suspects who cut deals with the prosecutor.
Flores is one of over 3,700 people on Death Row in the U.S.
As in Flores' case, opponents of the death penalty around the country charge that death sentences are meted out even when there is a lack of physical evidence, testimony from people with conflicts of interest and other arbitrary and inconsistent factors in the cases.
The death penalty has come under national scrutiny in the past few years, as questions have been raised about its constitutionality, the racism and classism inherent in the criminal justice system, prosecutorial and police misconduct, and the growing number of innocent people released from Death Row.
Both Illinois and Maryland imposed moratoriums on the death penalty in the past two years. Illinois Gov. George Ryan called the death penalty "badly broken and deeply flawed" when he imposed the moratorium on Jan. 29, 2000. At that time, he appointed a commission that released a report in April of that year suggesting 85 reforms that could be described as progressive but not sweeping. Ryan mandated that all Death Row inmates would get a clemency hearing before he left office at the end of 2002, constituting what The Washington Post called "the most comprehensive review of the death penalty by any state."
Meanwhile in May 2002, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening called for a moratorium and also commissioned a study released in the fall of 2002. However, Governor-elect Robert Ehrlich has promised to end the moratorium once he takes office, leaving as many as seven people vulnerable to execution during his first year in office. At least 73 municipalities have also passed resolutions against the death penalty, most recently New York City.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which had declared the death penalty constitutional in 1976 after a nationwide moratorium, began a serious reconsideration of the penalty last year. In June 2002, it ruled against the execution of the mentally retarded.
The Supreme Court also ruled that juries-not judges-decide whether an inmate gets the death penalty. While this decision was lauded by some death penalty opponents, the fact remains that, as required by law, only jurors in favor of the death penalty can be chosen for a possible capital trial.
Twice this year, federal district judges also ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. In July, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in New York declared the 1994 Death Penalty Act unconstitutional; in September, U.S. District Judge William Sessions in Vermont ruled that the penalty violates the Sixth Amendment's right to a fair trial. While these rulings do not stop the death penalty from being used, they are seen as significant messages to state and federal government.
Polls have shown growing opposition to the death penalty nationally, with some opposing it based on the fact that many innocent people are likely on Death Row, and others opposing it even for the clearly guilty on moral and religious grounds.
"There is a growing public skepticism toward the death penalty," says Jane Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. "The coalition has been around 25 years. At first we were just a few people holding vigils outside executions. Now it's exciting to learn that we're not alone. We've come a tremendous distance from when the death penalty could be used to torpedo a politician's candidacy if they opposed it, to where politicians are supporting the moratorium."
Opposition to the penalty even includes family members of murder victims, such as the group Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. In one example, the father of murdered Houston police officer James Boswell spoke out against the scheduled November 19, 2002 execution of his father's killer, Craig N. Ogan, stating another death wouldn't do his family any good.
But support for the death penalty has also continued. In October, the anti-death penalty movement received a setback when the U.S. Supreme Court was split over whether to allow the execution of 16- and 17-year-olds. Currently 22 states execute minors and 83 people are on Death Row for crimes they committed as minors (age 16 or 17). In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute people who are 15 or younger at the time they commit their crimes. The Death Penalty Information Center notes that two in three children sentenced to die are people of color and that only a few other countries in the world-Congo, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia-allow the execution of minors. Pakistan and Yemen recently outlawed the practice.
Racism and Innocence
Lynching has almost disappeared, with the exception of horrific crimes like the dragging murder of James Byrd in Texas on June 7, 1998 when three men beat Byrd, chained him by the ankles and dragged him behind a pickup truck before decapitating him. However, critics say, the death penalty has emerged as a form of "legal lynching."
In general, blacks and Latinos are executed at a much higher rate than whites, relative to the population, and people who murder whites are much more likely to get the death penalty. ("Executing Minorities - An American Tradition", The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty) In Maryland, for example, blacks account for about 80 percent of murder victims, yet 92 percent of people on Death Row are there for killing a white person. (Maryland's Racist Death Machine", The New Abolitionist, May 2002) And the vast majority of Death Row inmates-black or white-are indigent or low-income.
"It's often said that the death penalty isn't reserved for the worst crimes, but for the people with the worst lawyers," says David Elliott, communications director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "We need videotaped confessions to make sure there is no coercion, we need to eliminate the death penalty in cases where a jailhouse snitch or a single eyewitness was used to convict, because we know how unreliable eyewitnesses are. We also need to look at how race plays out in the death penalty."
President and former Texas Gov. George W. Bush has long been an ardent supporter of the death penalty. Texas is the most eager executioner with, by far, the highest number of executions in the country. Since 1976, at least 285 people have been put to death in Texas. Eleven of the 19 juveniles executed since the penalty was reinstated were in Texas.
At least four Texans had execution dates in November 2002. The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty noted that there were significant factors arguing against the penalty in all these cases. For example, James Blake Colburn was scheduled to be executed November 6, until the U.S. Supreme Court gave him a temporary reprieve in the final hours. Colburn, convicted of stabbing and strangling a 55-year-old woman, had been a diagnosed and periodically institutionalized paranoid schizophrenic since age 17 and had long been suffering post-traumatic stress effects from a violent homosexual rape. The U.S. Supreme Court delayed the execution to debate whether Colburn had been competent to stand trial when he was convicted. He was so heavily sedated at the time that he slept through much of the proceedings.
Virginia is second in the number of executions with 86, Missouri third with 58 and Florida and Oklahoma fourth and fifth with 53 and 52 respectively.
In Florida, where Bush's brother Jeb is governor, the state Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in an October 24, 2002 ruling on a lawsuit brought by two inmates challenging the penalty's constitutionality. Florida currently has 369 inmates on Death Row, with many of their warrants signed by Bush. Florida also leads the country in the number of innocents let off death row -- 25 since 1973 (although the Death Penalty Information Center only acknowledges 22 as "truly exonerated").
Illinois is second in that category, with 13 innocent people released while only 12 people were executed between 1977and 1999. One of them, Anthony Porter, had come within two days of execution before Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and his students helped prove his innocence.
In April 2002, the 100th innocent person in the country was released from Death Row, when Ray Krone walked out of prison in Arizona after DNA testing cleared him of the 1991 murder and sexual assault of a cocktail waitress. DNA testing has made it much easier to prove a person's innocence, but the existence of the technology does not necessarily mean a Death Row inmate will have access to this tool or that the system will work to correct itself. In Texas, Jesse Joe Patrick got an execution date before the results were back from his DNA testing. In Texas as in other states, laws have been passed mandating state-paid DNA tests if the inmate can prove it is likely to exonerate him. But in Patrick's case and others like him, if the inmate doesn't convince a judge of the strong possibility of his exoneration then he is left to pay for his own tests.
In declaring the moratorium, Illinois Gov. Ryan noted that in the bulk of the cases of innocents on Death Row, it was not the judicial process, but rather crusading lawyers and journalists like Protess who obtained the release of innocent people.
"Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977 in Illinois, the state has nearly executed 13 inmates who were later found innocent and wrongfully convicted," says Governor Ryan. . "Executing the wrong inmates, as we have done in Illinois almost 13 times, would only compound the tragedy."
Innocence Claims Falling on Deaf Ears
Flores and his family and supporters maintain he is innocent. A group called the Comite Exigimos Justicia (Committee Seeking Justice) claims he is among many Latino victims of a group of corrupt cops in the Area Five police district of Chicago who they say frame innocent men for crimes they did not commit.
While on Death Row at the Pontiac Correctional Center, Flores became a talented self-taught painter and, with the help of supporters on the outside, launched exhibits in Chicago and Spain. Other inmates and journalists often remark about his seemingly irrepressible positive attitude and gentle demeanor, and the Mexican consulate has repeatedly demanded that, as a Mexican citizen, Flores should not be given the death penalty.
"I feel outraged at the fact that I have had to remain in here for so many years of my life without being taken seriously about my claims of innocence," he wrote in a letter. "But I feel fortunate and blessed for being able to endure and transcend beyond this longstanding misfortune and oppression"
On October 15, 2002, the first day of the clemency hearings, Flores' family and supporters went before the state of Illinois' Prison Review Board asking them to spare his life. His lawyers asked that he be given a 40-year sentence rather than the death penalty; his family said this tactical move was a hard decision since they are certain he is innocent.
Flores was among 142 Illinois Death Row inmates who made pleas for clemency-essentially, for their very lives-between October 15 and 27.
There were tears and expressions of pain and despair throughout the courtroom during these wrenching hearings. Family members of the inmates dealt with the anguish of having loved ones sentenced to die, in many cases despite evidence of innocence. And murder victims' family members relived the awful details of the killings.
Death penalty opponents worried that the hearings may actually have been counterproductive, since they brought out the gruesome and sensational nature of many murders and shifted the focus away from problems with the penalty.
"We've been hit hard over the past week by the state's parading of family members of violent crime victims," says Joan Parkin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "Our hearts go out to them, but let's talk about the other victims, the Death Row Ten who were tortured by [former Chicago police commander] Jon Burge, the people who were convicted based on a single eyewitness or a jailhouse snitch."
In the House of Death
The Illinois Prison Review Board will make individual recommendations to Gov. Ryan regarding each inmate's case. The recommendations are non-binding; while Ryan originally was considering blanket commutations for everyone on Death Row, he has now virtually ruled that possibility out and has committed to review them on a case-by-case basis.
The Illinois moratorium, commission report and clemency hearings were lauded by death penalty opponents as a step in the right direction. "This is a piece in the pie," said Elliott. "We're hopeful of many, many commutations."
But many death penalty abolitionists see the events of the past two years in Illinois as only a drop in the bucket, creeping reforms in a system that has surely already murdered innocent people.
When the moratorium was instituted, for example, some inmates noted that life in prison would be only slightly less tolerable than the death penalty for a crime they didn't commit. Aaron Patterson, convicted for a 1986 double stabbing murder he swears he didn't commit, wrote in letters that he will take nothing less than freedom. He turned down a deal from State's Attorney Dick Devine last year that would have set him free in several years if he admitted guilt in the murders.
No physical evidence links Patterson to the murder of an elderly South Side Chicago couple who allegedly ran a fence for stolen goods. He was convicted largely based on the testimony of a then 15-year-old girl whose cousin was also a suspect in the case as well as an unsigned confession that he says was coerced under torture. He is one of a group known as the "Death Row Ten," who allege they were tortured into making confessions by former Chicago Area Two Commander Jon Burge and his underlings. Burge was dismissed from the force in 1993 after an internal investigation found he had indeed tortured over 40 black men, using techniques like suffocation with typewriter covers, electric shock and Russian roulette.
"They're wagging a key in front of my face," said Patterson last fall by phone from Pontiac Correctional Center, where he was in solitary confinement. "But I never even gave it a second thought. I'd rather spend 15 more years in prison than admit to something I didn't do."
At a conference sponsored by the Governor's office last spring, many of the wrongfully convicted men spoke up about their experiences on Death Row. One of these was Darby Tillis, who has become a minister and outspoken activist since his release.
"When you get the death penalty, most of us try to stand up and take it like a man," said Tillis. "Then you get to Death Row. You're hit by the stench of Pinesol, feces, urine, body odor, sick odor. You are in the Death House. You are treated like a contaminated piece of meat to be disposed of."
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Make an IMPACT
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty as well as countless state and local religious groups and organizations opposing the death penalty publish action alerts whenever inmates' execution dates are set. These groups ask that concerned citizens contact their elected officials regarding these individual cases and the death penalty in general. It is especially important to contact governors since they are capable of offering clemency to Death Row inmates. Protests and vigils are held outside prisons during many executions. Visit these web sites for more information on the fight to abolish the death penalty: