“The most haunting fear for a prosecutor is that the system could make a mistake, sending an innocent person to death.” Brent M. Bloom, former chief deputy Douglas Country prosecutor.
Nebraska’s criminal justice system can’t get it right
In Nebraska, the overall error rate in death penalty cases is 68 percent, meaning that courts have found serious, reversible error in nearly 7 of every 10 death penalty cases.
- In 2008 and 2009 Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Kathy Gonzalez, James Dean, and Debra Shelden were pardoned for a crime they didn’t commit. Joseph White was fully exonerated when charges against him were dropped on November 10, 2008. The Beatrice Six were the first six people exonerated by DNA evidence in Nebraska history.
- Top Douglas County crime scene investigator David Kofoed was convicted of planting blood evidence in a car, which led to the incarceration of two innocent men. Kofoed served jail time and was ordered to pay $6.49 million to the two men his phony evidence helped incarcerate.
- In addition to the lawsuit against Kofoed, one of the innocent men agreed to a settlement that cost taxpayers $1.65 million ($1 million paid by Cass County; $600,000 by the State of Nebraska; and $50,000 by Douglas County, Nebraska) 
Across the USA, more than one innocent person has been exonerated from death row for every ten who have been executed. That’s an error rate of more than 10 percent. More than 300 others, including 6 in Nebraska, have been exonerated from long prison sentences as a result of dramatic advances in DNA testing.
The threat of the death penalty increases the risk of sending an innocent person to prison.
The “Beatrice Six” are six innocent Nebraskans who spent a combined 77 years in prison for a murder they didn’t commit. They confessed to the crime after being threatened with the death penalty. “We were all scared of it. They were all threatening us with it,” said James Dean, one of the five who was exonerated. Ada Joann Taylor, another defendant, said, “They told me they wanted to make me the first female on death row.” 5 confessed, and their confessions were used to convict the sixth defendant, whose fight for his exoneration led to the DNA testing that freed all six.
The Beatrice Six have sued Nebraska for damages, and been awarded over 1.8 million dollars.
The Beatrice Six weren’t the only innocent people who went to prison because of the death penalty. In April 2006, in Cass County, Matthew Livers, then 28, confessed, after more than 11 hours of questioning, to the murder of his uncle and aunt, and implicated his cousin, Nicholas Sampson, in the murders. Livers, like the Beatrice Six, was threatened with the electric chair. The problem—he didn’t do it, and neither did his cousin. The real murderers are now serving life sentences.
The system makes it difficult to find and free those wrongly convicted.
Contrary to popular belief, the post conviction process isn’t designed to root out innocence, only to discover errors in the trial process.
- Shockingly, in 1993, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it is constitutional to execute an innocent person as long as that person had a “fair” trial. This ruling hasn’t been reversed.
- In fact, the vast majority of exonerations have come about only because of the extraordinary efforts of people working outside the system—pro bono lawyers, family members, and former jurors, even students.
Forensics is not a safety net for the innocent.
Hundreds of DNA exonerations reveal that murder cases are often riddled with problems: mistaken eyewitnesses, bad lawyers, shoddy forensics, unreliable jailhouse snitches, coerced confessions, and more.
DNA cannot solve these problems – it can only tell us how bad they are. DNA evidence exists in just 5-10% of homicide cases – far fewer than one would think from TV crime shows.
Some forensic evidence used in cases is now known to be based on junk science. The FBI announced that experts exaggerated the value of hair analysis in hundreds of cases, 32 of which resulted in a death sentence. Defendants in 9 of those cases have been executed. Finger print, bite mark, ballistics, and fire pattern analyses have also come under scrutiny.
In cases where DNA evidence is available, courts can block access to testing, even when it could exonerate someone. Furthermore, scientific evidence is only as good as the people testing it. Crime labs from Baltimore to Oklahoma City have come under fire for errors and even fraud in their forensics. Here in Nebraska a top crime scene investigator was convicted of planting blood evidence in a double homicide case.
It is unacceptable to risk executing an innocent person while the real perpetrators remain unpunished and at large
Wrongful convictions mean victims’ families suffer while the real killers remain at large and tax dollars are wasted. These cases represent much that is failing in our justice system.
National List of Death Row Exonerations
The Innocent and the Death Penalty
The Boston Globe “The Case Against Evidence”
- Testimony to the Nebraska Judiciary Committee, January 29, 2009
- “The Disposition of Nebraska Capital & Non-Capital Homicide Cases (1973-1999): A Legal & Empirical Analysis,” 2001; http://www.ncc.state.ne.us/documents/other/homicide.htm. See also Jerry Soucie, Nebraska Capital Cases, Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, March 15, 2007.
- “Former Investigator ordered to pay nearly $6.5M for Planting Evidence” KETV 7 Omaha, April 1, 2014 http://www.ketv.com/news/former-investigator-ordered-to-pay-nearly-65m-for-planting-evidence/25268416 ; http://www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/macarthur/projects/wrongful/livers.html
- Death Penalty Information Center, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org; The Innocence Project, www.innocenceproject.org.
- P. Hammel, “Pardons granted to five in murder they didn’t commit,” Omaha World-Herald, January 27, 2009
- J Dugan, “Nebraska to pay $300k to defendant wrongfully convicted in Beatrice 6 case,” Omaha World-Herald, December 17, 2014 http://www.omaha.com/news/crime/nebraska-to-pay-k-to-defendant-wrongly-convicted-in-beatrice/article_750ef530-860d-11e4-bdb7-efa0091171ca.html
- Cara Pesek, “Nephew of slain Murdock couple files wrongful imprisonment suit,” Lincoln Journal Star, March 12, 2008; Northwestern University, Center on Wrongful Convictions, http://www.law.northwestern.edu/wrongfulconvictions/.
- Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993).
- Kathleen Hawk Norman, “Trials too impure to risk executions,” Omaha World-Herald, March 2, 2009; The Innocence Project, www.innocenceproject.org.
- K. O’Brien, “The Case Against Evidence” The Boston Globe, November 7, 2010
- “Former Investigator ordered to pay nearly $6.5M for Planting Evidence” KETV 7 Omaha, April 1, 2014