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.