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March 14, 2014 - 12:01am

Policy Matters: Repealing the death penalty


The story of Glenn Ford is a chilling reminder that the American justice system is just as flawed as the human beings who orchestrate it. In the afternoon of Tuesday, March 11, 2014 Glenn Ford left Louisiana’s Angola Prison a free man after sitting on death row for 30 years. He was one of the longest serving death row inmates in this country’s history to be absolved. For all of those 30 years Ford claimed his innocence in the 1984 robbery and murder of Isadore Rozeman. This case has racial undertones and a constitutionally flawed trial, to boot. Ford’s story proves not only the fallibility of our justice system, but also the horror of the death penalty and the urgent need to dispose of it.
The trial in 1984 that convicted Ford to a sentence of death was fundamentally unsound. For starters, he is a black man and the entire jury — who convicted him in under three hours — was white. Made in the south during the 1980’s, this decision was likely a race-based one. The prosecutors purposely used their preemptory strikes — kicking potential jurors off the panel — when picking the jury to keep all black people from possibly serving. We know from the court record of the trial that the prosecutors’ case was presented without proper evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ford was indeed the killer, which is the test for determining guilt or innocence in a criminal defense murder case.
According to The Atlantic, “there was no murder weapon found. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime.” Furthermore, the entire prosecuting case was based on one woman, Marvella Brown, who had led to the arrest of Ford. Under cross-examination she admitted to the jury that, “the police had helped her make up the story she had told about Ford.” Brown said said, “I did lie to the Court…I lied about it all.” Not only was the jury racist and the prosecutors lacking evidence, but the two defense attorneys who defended Ford were also unprepared. Atlantic reports that, “the lead attorney … have never tried a case — criminal or civil — to a jury.”
Sadly, circumstances like these are not uncommon. In a situation where the defendant cannot afford an experienced and knowledgeable attorney, things can turn sour very quickly. The prosecution often wants to convict someone— anyone — in order to placate the family of the victim and to appear as if “justice is served.” In our racially charged society, sometimes circumstances seem to point to race as a factor in determining guilt or innocence, rather than listening to the evidence presented in a trial. This shows how the nature of human flaws translates to the American judicial system. It also proves how dangerous doubt can be when someone’s life is on the line.
This is not an isolated incident. It has been proven time and time again through exonerations that juries can be wrong and lawyers are not always prepared or knowledgeable enough to defend or prosecute. Human fallibility in the justice system must be accepted. Why, then, do some states — and the federal judicial system present in all states — still have death as a punishment for certain crimes? Since we can never be 100 percent sure that something is true because we are merely human, how can we have the death of another person on our hands? Ford is lucky that he never reached the day that the government stopped his heartbeat, but it loomed over him like a dark and imminent shadow. He sat in his prison cell for thirty years claiming innocence and it took all of that time for people to listen and finally realize how flawed the trial had been and how his guilt would have been impossible based upon other evidence that recently came to light. 30 years of his life are gone. He is lucky it wasn’t his whole life.
It is all but guaranteed that there are other people sitting on death row, or simply sitting in prison cells for the rest of their lives, who are innocent. The justice system works well, but some people slip through the cracks and become victims of human fallibility. The death penalty must be stopped to help in making sure murder is not on the hands of the government — especially if the person who was murdered by our government proves to have been innocent all along.