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The Innocence Fraud Project

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When the cost argument against the death penalty falls flat, abolitionists resort to what is, at least in theory, a far more compelling argument:  That execution is irretrievable, and that the execution of an innocent person is not merely possible  --  it's happened.

Since the death penalty is a human institution, it is fallible.  No honest person could deny that it's possible an innocent man could be put to death, and that this would be a tragedy of the first order.  (Of course so would a subsequent murder by a convict who legally could have been executed but wasn't  --  something that has provably happened but that abolitionists routinely ignore).

The Innocence Project has spent years singing the "we-executed-the-wrong-guy" anthem.  For a long time, the poster boy was Roger Keith Coleman, a Virginia man advertised across the nation as the victim of sloppy or corrupt police and morally brain dead jurors, all working in concert against a "marginalized" defendant.  It was a compelling story, except for one thing:  It was all a fraud.


In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Marquette University Professor John McAdams tells the story.  McAdams notes that Coleman

...was tried for a rape/murder and executed by Virginia in 1992. An essay still on the site of the Death Penalty Information Center [now 18 years later] discusses the case at considerable length, and clearly leaves the impression that Coleman must [have been] innocent. After attacking all the evidence against Coleman, the essay claims that 'official misconduct that has left the case against Roger Coleman in shreds' and goes on to claim:

'. . . there is dramatic evidence that another person, Donney Ramey, committed the murder. For one thing, a growing number of women in the neighborhood have reported being sexually assaulted by Ramey in ways strikingly similar to the attack on Wanda McCoy. For another, one of these rape victims, Teresa Horn, has courageously signed an affidavit stating that Ramey told her he had killed Mrs. McCoy.'

Someone reading the Death Penalty Information Center website, and lacking due skepticism toward the assertions there, would doubtless conclude that Coleman was innocent. Unfortunately, the State of Virginia undertook DNA testing of key evidence in 2005, using technology unavailable in 1992, and proved decisively that Coleman was in fact guilty as charged. The credibility of anti-death penalty activists when making claims of innocence - whether for those on death row or those who have been executed - is tenuous at best.

For whatever problems Professor McAdams may have found with the abolitionist movement's credibility, however, there are none with its PR prowess.  For more than a decade, Coleman was the poster-boy of abolition.  Around the time of his execution, his picture was on the cover of Time magazine ('This Man Might Be Innocent. This Man Is Due to Die'). He was interviewed from death row on 'Larry King Live,' the 'Today' show, 'Primetime Live,' 'Good Morning America and 'The Phil Donahue Show.'  Even one Supreme Court Justice, in an opinion filed shortly before the execution, cautioned that "Coleman has now produced substantial evidence that he may be innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to die." Coleman v. Thompson, 504 U. S. 188, 189 (1992) (Blackmun, J., dissenting).

DPIC now has a grudging three-paragraph disclaimer on its (still posted) 31-page article about Coleman and other cases in which it claims that innocent people are more-or-less routinely condemned by corrupt police, dishonest prosecutors and morally indifferent juries.   Oddly, though, the disclaimer ends with this:  "Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, praised the governor's decision to allow the testing and noted that, 'The real issue is not whether one man was in fact guilty or innocent, it's rather that he set the example of what the other 49 governors should do.'"

Really?  When, in order to erode public support for the death penalty, abolitionists choose to mount a years-long, acidic major media campaign to show that a particular executed prisoner was innocent, the "real issue" is, well, whether he was innocent.  Coleman wasn't.  And so far as evidence accepted by any neutral arbiter establishes, neither was any other prisoner executed in the modern era.

2 Comments

As much as I agree with much of the post, it seems a little tone-deaf to me. I think the reality is that the public is (rightly) concerned with innocence issues, and whether or not the abolitionist lobby overstates the case, the public is interested in measures that decrease the likelihood of the execution (or continued incarceration) of an innocent man. I think, also, Neufeld and the Innocence Project have done a lot of good over the years, and I don't think that simply dismissing them as frauds strikes the right note. Without question, they are zealots, and they don't play fair all the time. I think the key is that they've gotten, putatively, most of what they want. Most states have liberal DNA testing laws, and I think that courts, generally, are far more lenient when it comes to innocence claims (even to the point of people getting away with murder, which I believe happened in the Paul House case). Juries, I think, also are more likely to bring a healthy (or even sometimes unhealthy) skepticism to the jury box.

No person with a conscience could be unconcerned with innocence. I am therefore all for DNA testing, so long as it is actually used to assess innocence -- and not as a dodge to run the clock, as late-blooming claims of factual innocence have been used for years by death row inmates.

I am also, incidentally, all for videotaping police interrogations (preferrably together with re-instating the regimen Congress adopted in 18 USC 3501, but which the Court effectively nullified in the Dickerson case). Videotaping is normally thought of as a defense-oriented suggestion. What it will actually show, however, is that the typical claim of coercive police behavior is almost always false. But one way or the other, videotaping, like DNA testing, is one more avenue to the truth, and therefore welcome in my eyes, let the chips fall where they may.

I didn't state, and don't believe, that the Innocence Project is a "fraud." It has a distinct bias, and as you say is prone to overstatement, but that is a different matter. I did say that the Coleman innocence campaign was a fraud. I don't think there's any other way to characterize the bitter and acerbic (and false) charges made against the police, prosecutor and jurors in that case (charges that were raised, I should add, not by Mr. Neufeld but by Centurian Ministries, which carried most of the water for Coleman).

Finally, I should note that, while my principal reason for supporting DNA testing is to get at the truth, there is a secondary, albeit related, reason. It is that DNA testing will solidify support for the death penalty in the long run. As you correctly point out, people are concerned that only the guilty should be punished. As DNA evidence increasingly reassures people that this is what's happening, the already high support for capital punishment is likely to increase.

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