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Will executions haunt the American public?

Sister Tadea Benz was murdered in 1981. Her killer was caught and, in the Texas style of justice, executed after his trial and a long wait at death row. Even if Pope John Paul 2 spoke out on his behalf and asked the authorities to reconsider. Justice was done. But more than twenty years after the murder doubts are being raised if Johnny Frank Garret, who ended up at the wrong end of the execution needle, is the real murderer. New evidence, a new suspect and the continuing believe of his family members that he is innocent have given the case a second live, although that option doesn’t exist for Garret. And it is not the first time that questions are raised if an executed man is possible innocent.

The rape and killing of the aged nun seemed an open and shut case for everybody, except for the family and friends of Johnny Frank Garret, a slow boy of 17 in 1981. Even if he confessed to the crime and was executed 12 years ago, more and more people are asking themselves if the confession wasn't false.  A statement made to please the interrogating police officers by a mentally ill boy who couldn't see the implications of his confession. Later on Garret withdrew his confession and claimed to be innocent. DNA testing of hair samples can probably shed light on the guilt or innocence of Garret. If these samples will be tested will remain to be seem, so a doubt will stay if not the wrong man was executed.

More and more people question if the population on the several death rows in the United States, where inmates are housed until the moment the state extinguishes their lives; don’t contain more innocent Americans than is believed until now. The last years more than 100 people where released out of death row because they proved they were innocent or in a retrial their guilt couldn’t be proved. Some of them came within hours of their execution. For how many innocent didn’t the dice roll right and they were executed? Some cases are highly questioned.

With recent developments in the United States more and older cases can come back to haunt judges, jury members, prosecutors, lawyers and the American public, not to mention the correction officers who performed the executions. DNA testing is more reliable and can be used to prove, even many years after the fact, that someone was on the scene of the crime, or that he or she is innocent.

Questions are also being raised on the reliability of crime labs, with scandals in Oklahoma and Texas where evidence was misplaced, handled incorrectly and even questions were raised if in some cases the evidence wasn’t falsified to secure a conviction. Lawyers, the press and anti-death penalty action groups are taking more interest in such cases, because the proof of an innocent executed, can be the fatal blow to the system. People like George W. Bush gained political profit from executions and the claim that this was proof that they are tough on crime, but how would that change if they let an innocent man go to his death?  And with better technical possibilities and storing capacities evidence can be tested again for many years to come.

In Great Brittan several hangings occurred in the last century: those were of innocent men. The cases of these victims of the system were looked at again half a century after the executions. The United States can look at a similar development. It’s just a matter of time until a judge orders a trial to be reopened and the evidence examined again. Most executed are probably guilty, but what skeletons will come out of their caskets?

 

Richard Wagenaar

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