Yesterday, the State of Connecticut took a critical step toward joining a handful of states whose recent death penalty repeals were motivated by unsettling evidence of innocent people on death row. The post-midnight Senate vote following animated testimony in favor of a bi-partisan repeal bill was a close 20-16. Republican Representative Smith stated that one of his main concerns with Connecticut’s death penalty is the record of DNA exonerations. Not surprisingly, innocence held moral sway.
As counsel on a death penalty appeal early in my legal career, I witnessed the moral impropriety of a death sentence based on rife prosecutorial misconduct and set against a gnawing backdrop of actual innocence. The defendant, Delma Banks, Jr., fortunately prevailed in having his death sentence commuted in an impassioned opinion delivered for the majority by Justice Ginsburg in Banks v. Dretke. Despite this rare instance of habeas relief, Mr. Banks still faces the threat of a death sentence in a new trial. Like many other death row cases, Mr. Banks’s retrial is based on stale evidence and questionable prosecutorial tactics. Although the pursuit of innocence claims was foreclosed years ago, Mr. Banks’s case now exists in a climate of growing recognition of wrongful convictions. Indeed, the trailblazing work of the Innocence Project and its many spinoffs has slowly permeated the national consciousness with the haunting whisper that the state sometimes kills innocents on death row. Read More