Imagine spending 5,110 nights behind prison walls, with the threat of execution hanging over your head, for a crime you had nothing to do with.
I don’t have to imagine it. I spent 12 years on death row in Illinois for a crime I did not commit. I was released from prison in May of 2004, and ever since, I have been traveling the country to share this message, “You can release a man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave.”
After telling my story at Kentucky colleges, meeting with fair goers and legislators a couple of years ago, I’m back to meet with faith-based groups, civic clubs, students and community members across Eastern Kentucky.
In 1986, a friend and I were questioned by police about the brutal, double murders of newlyweds in our rural Southern Illinois town. We cooperated with investigators and provided a corroborated alibi for the night of the murders. Shockingly, within 97 days of our contact with police both of us were arrested, tried and convicted.
I was sentenced to death, and my friend was given a life sentence.
Wondering how something like this could happen? I had poor legal representation, and witnesses fabricated testimony against me, due to police misconduct. An investigation by the Illinois State Police proved that local law enforcement and prosecutors had framed me.
Think my case is unusual, and that something like this could not happen in Kentucky? Think again.
A two-year review by a team of Kentucky legal experts found that “serious problems persist” in the state’s death penalty procedures.
Of the 78 people sentenced to death in Kentucky since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 50 have had their death sentence overturned on appeal by Kentucky or federal courts. That is an error rate of more than 60 percent.
The review by the Kentucky Assessment Team on the Death Penalty produced a number of other troubling findings: There are inadequate standards for retaining evidence that could exonerate innocent people and aid apprehension of the guilty; there are no uniform standards to guard against false eyewitness identifications and false confessions; public defenders in the commonwealth have caseloads that far exceed national averages, and salaries that are 31 percent below those of similarly experienced attorneys in surrounding states.
Other problem areas the review uncovered included juror confusion over sentencing guidelines, inadequate protections for the mentally disabled, racial and socioeconomic biases that influence all aspects of death penalty cases, and a lack of record-keeping “making it impossible to guarantee that the system is operating fairly and effectively.”
The review confirmed what the ACLU of Kentucky and their coalition partners with the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty have been saying for years: Kentucky’s death penalty system is irretrievably broken.
The only way to permanently fix this risky, arbitrary, unfair, ineffective and costly distraction from justice is to repeal the death penalty in the commonwealth. Other states are getting the message; 20 are already non-death penalty states.
How long before folks in Kentucky realize that innocent lives, like mine are at risk?
Randy Steidl is a member of Witness to Innocence, an organization of death row exonerees. He will host free, public events in Prestonsburg, Pikeville and Whitesburg November 14-16. For tour details visit http://www.aclu-ky.org/