As Californians prepare to vote in November on Proposition 34, which would reduce all death sentences to life in prison without parole, both sides on the issue agree that the state has never executed a prisoner who was later proved to be innocent, says the San Francisco Chronicle. Still, doubts persist about the guilt of an inmate who was put to death in 1998. And five men sentenced to death under current California law were later cleared of the murder charges that put them on Death Row.
Those five cases illustrate “how easily someone who did not commit the murder could have been executed,” said John Cotsirilos, lawyer for Lee Farmer, who was freed in 1999 after 17 years in prison. Farmer’s case is far from unique, Cotsirilos said, because convictions are often based on human observations that may convince a jury but can’t be scientifically verified. In California and other states, he asserted, “people have been executed whose cases had as much doubt as Lee’s.” Says Natasha Minsker of the Yes on 34 campaign, “We know that we make mistakes.” Eliminating the death penalty, she said, “we will prevent making the ultimate mistake.” Mitch Zak, spokesman for the No on 34 campaign, which is backed by prosecutors and law enforcement groups, said the five reversals reflect a legal system that has the necessary safeguards against injustice.