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Wake Forest law school panel calls for elimination of death penalty

A panel of death penalty opponents used the one-year anniversary of the execution of Troy Davis to call for the elimination of a system that they say is broken.

Davis’ case attracted international attention. In 1989, Davis, an African American,  was accused of fatally shooting a white police officer in Savannah, Ga., though there was no physical evidence to connect him to the crime and most of the eye witnesses in the case recanted their statements. Davis was put to death on Sept. 21, 2011.

The panel, held at Wake Forest University, was moderated by Mark Rabil of the school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic, and featured former inmate Darryl Hunt, retired death row Chaplain Rev. Carroll Pickett and lawyer Kristin Parks, who is currently representing a client whose case is drawing parallels with Davis’.

Hunt, who was represented by Rabil when he successfully fought for his freedom after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder, was a longtime advocate for Davis. The case was personal for him, having been only one vote away from the death penalty at his own trial. Two days before the WFU panel, Hunt took part in another death penalty discussion at North Carolina Central University with Davis’ sister, Kim.

“There’s nothing we can do to bring Troy back, but we can stop the other Troys from being executed, and that is the most important thing is to be able to prevent it from happening to someone else,” said Hunt. “That’s what we hope to get out of this by continuing to bring awareness.”

Rabil said that the Wake panel discussion was not just an answer to Davis’ last words, which implored the public to “look deeper into this case” to “finally see the truth,” but  also a response to a 2006 Supreme Court decision penned by Justice Antonin Scalia in which he wrote that he wasn’t aware of anyone who was clearly innocent who had been executed and if such a thing happened “ the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

Rabil, who attended pro-Davis rallies in Atlanta with Hunt and thousands of others, said people did indeed shout about Davis’ innocence, sometimes literally from rooftops. There are many like Davis currently waiting to be put to death – those who were convicted on flimsy evidence and shoddy investigations, said Rabil. He added  that since 1976, 140 Americans have been exonerated from death row, with 71 of them being black.

Rev. Pickett said he’s seen an innocent man executed firsthand. He talked about Carlos DeLuna, who was executed  on Dec. 6, 1989 for the murder of a gas station attendant in Corpus Christi, Texas. Pickett said DeLuna was found hiding near the crime scene, but no evidence linked him to the murder. He said authorities wouldn’t investigate a similar-looking man, even after he had bragged about committing the crime in prison.

Pickett said that after getting to know DeLuna and hearing his side of the case, he knows he was innocent. He held up a 1,152-page Columbia Human Rights Law Review investigation published this year that he said proves DeLuna’s innocence.

“If you want to read something that will turn your stomach … this is a great book,” said Pickett. “This proves without a doubt that Texas executed Carlos Deluna, an innocent person.”

Pickett has a unique perspective on the death penalty. He was chaplain at Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas in 1982, when executions began again in the state after an 18-year moratorium brought on by legal challenges. When Pickett arrived, no one at the facility had presided over an execution before. Pickett still remembers the meeting the warden held with his staff about the subject.

“He got over to me, and he said ‘You are going to be with him all day long,  and your job is seduce his emotions so he won’t fight getting out of the cell or fight getting on the gurney,’” said Pickett.

He provided comfort to death row inmates, beginning that year with Charlie Brooks, the first man in the United States to be executed by lethal injection. Pickett gave comfort for 95 others over the course of his career.

Parks warned that another innocent man is about to be executed, this time in North Carolina. Her client, Melvin White, was convicted in 1996 of murdering a woman and her boyfriend in Craven County, but he’s maintained his innocence. She said the police never took finger-prints at the crime scene or looked for other suspects. The collection and SBI analysis of the only evidence in the case – three shell casings – is questionable, she said.

“There are cases that the truth doesn’t come out because of sloppy law enforcement work, and I think that’s what happened in Melvin’s case,” said Parks.

In memory of Davis, the NAACP is making posters of Davis with the words “Abolish the Death Penalty” available to print out, display and share online at action.naacp.org/troys-poster.