by Susan Fried
Approximately 50 people gathered at the house of Barbara and Robert Rose-Leigh Sunday, October 1st for a reception to support the work of Witness to Innocence, a national organization composed of and led by exonerated death row survivors and their families whose mission is to abolish the death penalty.
The gathering kicked off a week of events in Washington State centered around the fourth annual Wrongful Conviction Day, observed October 2nd. This internationally recognized day aims to bring awareness to wrongful convictions and the heavy emotional toll they take on innocent people and their families.
Witness to Innocence Executive Director, Magdaleno “Leno” Rose Avila, explained to reception attendees that the organization is trying to work with police departments and prosecutors across the country to end wrongful convictions.
“One of the things that we found out when dealing with the death penalty, is that a lot of the decisions are made by the police and the district attorneys. So we have a new program called ‘Accuracy in Justice,’” said Avila.
The ‘Accuracy in Justice’ program will capture the stories of three exonorees—examine what happened during their cases, what went wrong, and what improvements can be made by police and district attorneys to identify wrongful convictions and eliminate them. This will then be brought to the police and district attorneys in the form of a conversation.
“We have to have these conversations and we’re excited about it,” said Avila. “When we go in to see those DAs we’re not going to debate the death penalty, we’re going to debate justice because we want a safe community too. We want the real person caught, not an innocent person sent to death row or given a life sentence.”
Two exonerated death row survivors, now board members of Witness to Innocence, Sabrina Butler Smith and Randal Padgett described to attendees at the gathering their experience in the Justice system, a result of their wrongful convictions, and how their involvement in the fight to abolish the death penalty is helping them heal after being sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit.
Randal Padgett was sentenced to death by electric chair in Alabama May 22nd, 1992, on his birthday. “A lot of these events I go to, I hear a lot of talk about the death penalty is racist; this person grew up on the wrong side of the tracks; they never had a chance; they were poor; they couldn’t afford an attorney,” said Padgett. “That’s all true but what else is true is the death penalty, at least in Alabama, is no respecter of persons.”
“I did not grow up on the wrong side of the tracks. I had a good family. I’ve never been arrested in my life. I wasn’t poor; I wasn’t rich, but I wasn’t poor. I paid a lot of money, my family paid a lot of money for attorneys but I still got convicted of a crime I didn’t do.” Padgett explained.
According to Padgett, the case against him was based almost completely on tainted DNA evidence. In 1995 the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction, as the State failed to reveal discrepancies in blood tests that would have aided in Randal’s defense.
“The reason I won my appeal was that during the trial there was a DNA test involved – blood was taken from me and another suspect. Before trial there was also a DNA test done, the guy doing the blood typing for the second one said ‘that’s not your blood they did the original DNA test on’ […] When the State discovered that they didn’t tell anybody so I got sentenced to death. I won my appeal but what I’m trying to tell you is the State wasn’t required to do that second test. [Had the second test not occurred] I would have had no reason for an appeal and I’d probably be dead. And that scares me to death that innocent people have probably been executed,” said Padgett
Sabrina Butler-Smith also faced a wrongful conviction and was sentenced to death in Mississippi at age 17. She was accused of killing her nine month old son. After an appeal and retrial, Sabrina, who spent 5 years in prison and 33 months on death row, was exonerated. Her son’s cause of death was determined to be kidney disease. She described working with Witness to Innocence as her mission in life, a way to change “minds and hearts.”
“We need to abolish the death penalty because it is not right. If I didn’t have a good attorney, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you,” said Butler-Smith. She went on to address the inequities in the justice system. “You give some people the death penalty and you give others with the same charges different sentences. That is not right. Why don’t we abolish the death penalty and at least have a sentence where, if they do get it wrong they can fix it. You can’t fix death.”
In considering the devastating rippling effect a wrongful conviction can have on friends, family, and loved ones of the accused, Executive Director Magdaleno “Leno” Rose Avila says the work of Witness to Innocence “would help everybody, not just death row individuals.”
Witness to Innocence’s mission is to abolish the death penalty by empowering exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones to become effective leaders in the abolition movement. The organization also actively challenges political leaders and the public to grapple with the reality of a fatally flawed criminal justice system that sends innocent people to death row. Witness to Innocence also seeks ways to support death row survivors and their loved ones as they confront the challenges of life after exoneration.
Witness to Innocence is participating in the following events this week:
Wednesday, October 4th
Witness to Innocence: The Death Penalty and Race at Gonzaga University
Thursday, October 5th
Witness to Innocence Panel with Dr. Katherine Beckett & IPNW at the University of Washington School of Law
Susan Fried is a Seattle based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist and Skanner newspapers.