US students win reprieve for men on death rowBy James Langton
Sunday 6 February 2000
A group of Chicago university students has mounted the biggest challenge to capital punishment for almost a quarter of a century after proving that many "death row" inmates are innocent.
As a result of efforts by the group - known unofficially as the "Last Chance Club" - the Illinois state governor has ordered the first halt to executions since the death penalty was re-introduced in the United States in 1977. Governor George Ryan, a supporter of capital punishment, admitted that the judicial system was "fraught with errors" and said the state needed time to investigate all 165 death-row cases.
Working with their professor and a private detective, the students have cleared five prisoners - one only two days away from execution. This week, they expect to add a sixth name to a list that is causing embarrassment to the US system of justice. Growing doubts about tainted evidence and the fairness of trials have been brought to a head by the case of Anthony Porter, a small-time criminal sentenced to death for the drug-related murder of two teenagers in a Chicago park in 1982.
Journalism students at Northwestern University began to investigate his case as a project for their Mass Media and Capital Punishment class. Working with a private detective, they found convincing evidence that another man, Alstory Simon, had carried out the killings. Simon confessed after hearing an interview the students taped with his estranged wife in which she implicated him. The evidence was turned over to the authorities only two days before 44-year-old Porter's execution date. He was freed last February.
Prof David Protess says of his students: "I just turn them loose and they leave no stone unturned." In 1997, his class made headlines across the world after proving that four men had been wrongly convicted of a gang rape and double murder in 1978. The men were later awarded $36 million (£23 million) in compensation and sold their story to a Hollywood studio.
The students are currently working on four more cases, one of which will be presented with what Prof Protess calls "compelling evidence" to the Illinois appeal court this week. It involves Aaron Patterson, who says that police beat him into confessing to a 1986 double murder. The head of the detective squad was later sacked after allegations that he ordered the torture of suspects.
Prof Protess says that his class now receives hundreds of "heartbreaking" letters from death row inmates and their relatives asking for its help. He says: "We have been able to catch these cases, but how many other innocent people have gone to their deaths?"
Illinois has cleared a total of 13 inmates in the past two decades - one more than it has executed. If such a clearance rate had been mirrored nationwide, 50 prisoners might not have been executed. Opponents of the death penalty argue that many of those convicted in capital cases are denied a fair trial. The problem is said to be particularly acute in the southern US, where a disproportionate number of those on death row are poor and black. Many are defended by inexperienced legal aid lawyers who often lack the resources to mount a proper defence.
Abolitionist campaigners believe that moratoriums could be an important step towards curbing the tide of executions. Last autumn, legislators in Nebraska narrowly voted to suspend executions, but the move was vetoed by the state's governor.
Prof Protess and his supporters have established a Centre for the Wrongly Convicted at Northwestern University. It is part of a growing network of academic organisations studying flaws in the criminal justice system. Other groups include the Innocence Project at New York's Cardozo Law School, headed by Prof Barry Scheck, an expert in genetic fingerprinting who defended O J Simpson and the British nanny Louise Woodward.
Students at Northwestern pick cases with educational value which appear to have a good chance of success. They track down witnesses, re-examine interviews and trial testimony and even re-enact crime scenes - on one occasion proving that a witness could not have seen a killing as she claimed in court.
Their diligence and record has impressed seasoned campaigners. Richard Deeder, of the Death Penalty Information Centre in Washington said: "Anthony Porter is alive today only because of good fortune and the hard work of these students."