Judges, not DNA, freed four from Louisiana’s death row

Associated Press, Feb. 16, 2003
http://www.wbrz.com/

All four men freed from Louisiana’s death row since 1996 got out because judges ruled that prosecutors had done wrong – not because of DNA tests.

Nationwide, DNA evidence was the basis for freeing nine of the 38 people who have left death row since 1996.

But none of the four freed in Louisiana could have used a state law that lets inmates ask for a DNA test. DNA played little or no role in their convictions.

And because DNA isn’t always available in death penalty cases, the law is useless to many on death row, said Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle, a former state legislator.

New DNA technology would probably confirm the guilt of some people on death row, Riddle said.

“It may be that the few that have had the benefit of the new statute are really guilty,” Riddle said. “I predict that very few death penalty cases will be overturned by DNA because of that.”

Without the benefit of that law and DNA evidence, the decision about upholding a death sentence is left in the hands of appeals judges, said retired judge Robert Burns.

Burns is heading a Louisiana State Bar committee studying the death penalty system in the state.

Rulings by appellate judges are fallible, leaving the state with no way of being certain those on death row belong there, Burns said.

“This is a system with a big problem,” he said.

Curtis Kyles and Shareef Cousin, sent to death row in unrelated New Orleans murders, as well as Michael Graham and Albert Ronnie Burrell, both imprisoned for a double murder in Farmerville, were released since 1996.

Judges did not find any of them innocent. Rather, the judges overturned their convictions because prosecutors withheld significant evidence and information from the defense. Prosecutors decided not to retry the cases.

Louisiana is third in the nation since 1996 in releasing death row inmates among the 38 states that employ the death penalty. Not everyone agrees that the releases indicate a problem. To some, they show that the system works.

“I sure don’t see a problem,” said state Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, an outspoken supporter of the death penalty.

Defense attorney Nick Trenticosta disagrees and wants a moratorium on the death penalty.

Trenticosta said the numbers in Louisiana in recent years – five executed and four released in the last seven years – don’t add up.

He said that same kind of reasoning led former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute all death sentences on his last day in office.

Ryan said he couldn’t be sure that the death penalty was being administered properly. Ryan’s act didn’t free the death row inmates, but converted their sentences to prison time.

Foster, who took office in January 1996, is against a moratorium on executions. The death penalty remains a useful tool for the criminal justice system, he said.

Foster said he personally reviewed the files in each of the five executions since he took office.

State Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, said he will propose a moratorium on executions this year. His proposal two years ago was turned down.

A moratorium halting executions for a year or two “wouldn’t hurt anybody” while the issue is studied, he said.

“None of us want to put an innocent person to death,” Fields said. “You can’t bring someone back to life after they’ve been executed.”

Burns said his group is looking to improve the system. But he said it won’t recommend a moratorium or ending the death penalty in Louisiana.

Burns, who handled eight capital cases in 18 years as a state district judge in Jefferson Parish, said he was surprised that DNA wasn’t a factor in the Louisiana’s death row releases.

“I would have thought that most of the cases would be DNA,” Burns said.

Riddle said there’s no need for a moratorium. The appeals process plays a key role in halting executions while DNA is tested and in guarding against prosecutorial misconduct, he said.

Earl Taylor, the district attorney in St. Landry Parish, agreed. “I believe the best protection is the judge, the jury and the entire appellate process,” Taylor said. “The fact that there were four exonerations indicates that the appellate process works.”

Burns said he wants to see the entire system work better, especially since DNA, which can positively identify someone, plays such a small role in convictions being overturned.

He noted that the majority of death penalty cases in Louisiana are overturned at least once, resulting in multiple trials.

“We’re just not doing it right when 60 percent of death penalty cases are being reversed,” Burns said.

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