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‘Is the Death Penalty Worth the Risk?’: Three Death Row Exonerees Respond to Study about Pennsylvania Death Penalty

By Innocence Staff

Kirk Bloodsworth's sterling silver ring made for a death row exoneree.

Exonerees Harold Wilson, Kirk Bloodsworth and Ray Krone authored an opinion piece in the Morning Call in response to a recently disseminated report about the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The three men all share the chilling experience of being sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. They collectively spent 35 years on death row before they were exonerated.

Related: First DNA-Based Death Row Exoneree Kirk Bloodsworth Marks 25 Years of Freedom

Wilson, Bloodsworth and Krone use their op-ed as a platform to shed light on the astonishing number of innocent people who have been wrongly sentenced to death and later exonerated–a serious matter that, as the men explain, is not as uncommon as some may think. They write:

Unfortunately our stories are not isolated, nor are they rare. There are at least 162 men and women who have been released from death row nationwide due to wrongful convictions, and six of those cases are from Pennsylvania. Our cases suffered from many of the usual causes of wrongful conviction: mistaken eyewitness identification, official misconduct, and false or misleading forensic evidence. We were also fortunate that DNA testing played a role in helping to exonerate all three of us.

The men explain that the report about Pennsylvania’s death penalty, which was authored by the Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, is primarily concerned with the lack of resources allocated to defend individuals on death row. This is particularly troubling, the men argue, since “research has shown that ineffective lawyering is one of the prominent causes of wrongful convictions.” The report suggests the creation of a statewide, state-funded capital defender office to address this issue.

There are at least 162 men and women who have been released from death row nationwide due to wrongful convictions.

The report also recognizes the startling number of wrongfully convicted individuals who have been exonerated from death row:

In 2014, a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that 4.1% of individuals convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. were wrongfully convicted during the time period from 1973-2004. The authors note that this is a ‘conservative estimate’ of the proportion of wrongful capital convictions, and that the real proportion may be higher.

This, according to Wilson, Bloodsworth and Krone, “translates to approximately one out of every 24 prisoners currently on death row nationwide.”

While there is no doubt that innocent people are presently housed on Pennsylvania’s death row, Wilson, Bloodsworth and Krone agree there is no absolute way to ensure that innocent people aren’t sentenced to death. The men attribute this to basic human error.

“Our system of justice is administered by human beings—judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, experts, members of law enforcement, and jurors—who make mistakes despite their best efforts and intentions,” write the three exonerees.

Related: Expert Witnesses Admit Error in Case of Rodney Reed who has Served 22 Years on Texas Death Row, Prompting New Appeal

With this alarmingly real point about human fallacy in mind, Wilson, Bloodsworth and Krone implore readers to ask themselves: “Is the death penalty worth the risk?” 

Through voicing their collective opinion about the Pennsylvania death penalty and sharing their personal experiences as death row exonerees, Wilson, Bloodsworth and Krone invite readers to think deeply about the inevitable fate for many innocent individuals on death row. For this reason, they believe in the abolition of capital punishment–in Pennsylvania and beyond.

As one of our fellow exonerees always says, “You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave.”

They conclude: “As one of our fellow exonerees always says, ‘You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave.’”

Read the full op-ed here.

1 Comment

  1. Joan Walters

    The death penalty needs to be abolished for a lot of reasons. The most important being the murder of innocent people by the state. Also the complete injustice of financial resources for most individuals. It is more expensive than life without parole. This is a mistake that can not be fixed after death. The trauma of cruel punishment while awaiting appeals for the inmate and their families. Inhumane penalty banned in most civilized countries. This terrible sentence needs to be stopped. STOP THE DEATH PENALTY.

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