A disturbing compendium of wrongful convictions resulting in death sentences, focusing on individual stories and patterns of institutional failure.
Veteran journalist Cohen (The Execution of Officer Becker: The Murder of a Gambler, the Trial of a Cop, and the Birth of Organized Crime, 2006, etc.) brings moral outrage to this complex subject. “The execution of the innocent is not a chimera that troubles the imagination of the faint of heart,” he writes. “It is part of a broken system of justice.” Hardly rare, such occurrences have been documented since the early 1800s, but they seemingly spiked during the high-crime 1970s and ’80s. In reading through the many cases of death row exoneration since 2002 alone, as well as earlier ones, it becomes clear that those who suffer wrongful convictions tend to be poor, black, mentally challenged, or a combination; generally, their initial counsel is inadequate, and only the intervention of appellate attorneys and nonprofits reveals appalling instances of prosecutorial malfeasance or investigatory incompetence. All this gives weight to Cohen’s concern that the innocent have been executed. He begins by documenting two well-known cases where this almost certainly happened: Dennis Stockton of North Carolina and Cameron Todd Willingham of Texas. These set the grim tone for the case histories to follow, efficiently organized according to certain commonalities. Of these sections, the one dealing with official misconduct seems most ominous, focusing on stories like Chicago’s notorious police torture ring, which ginned up death penalty cases against at least 10 men. Yet, eyewitness misidentification, forensic errors, flawed science, and an overreliance on compromised criminal informants have proven nearly as problematic. The litany of depressing, detailed case histories can become numbing, but Cohen’s urgency doesn’t flag as he returns to researchers’ consensus that “about ten percent of the inhabitants of death row or inmates serving life sentences are innocent.”
A valuable accounting of a hidden societal plague, likelier to appeal to attorneys, students, and activists than to the police officers, prosecutors, and “tough on crime” types who should read it.