Death Row survivors call for abolition

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"MY NAME is Joseph Burrows," the speaker told his emotional audience. "The state of Illinois sought to kill me for a murder I did not commit. I was put on Death Row in 1989. I was released in 1994. If the state had its way, I'd be dead today."

One by one, Mr Burrows and 27 other former prisoners addressed the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty at Chicago's Northwestern University at the weekend.

Each stated how he or she had been put on Death Row, sometimes for 15 or 20 years, before being exonerated and released. Every former prisoner placed a sunflower in a vase. When the ceremony was over, they broke down in tears and offered each other hugs.

The conference was the first formal gathering of former Death Row inmates, and the largest convention on capital punishment since the United States resumed judicial executions 21 years ago.

With more than 1,000 lawyers and civil rights activists in attendance, the conference focused on 75 documented cases of overturned death sentences and examined the possibility that scores more people may have been executed for crimes they did not commit.

The United States has put almost 500 people to death since 1977. Another 3,500 await execution. Many states, such as Texas, have drastically increased the pace of executions.

A report by the human rights group Amnesty International stated: "For more than two decades judges and legislators in the US have struggled with - and failed to resolve - the central paradox of the death penalty: how to impose an irreversible punishment fairly and accurately, while ensuring that the sentence is carried out without delay.

"There is clear and convincing evidence that this attempt to balance fairness and finality has now been abandoned, sacrificed for the sake of political expediency."

Among the speakers at the conference was Rubin Carter, the former prize- fighter convicted for a triple murder in Paterson, New Jersey, and later the subject of one of Bob Dylan's most famous protest songs, Hurricane. Mr Carter, who was sentenced before the reintroduction of capital punishment, and exonerated after 19 years behind bars, now directs an association in Toronto that fights wrongful convictions. "There is no separation between being on Death Row or being held unjustly for the rest of your life," he said. "Prison is death."

In its report, Amnesty analysed the reasons for wrongful death sentences: the inadequacy of court-appointed defence lawyers, misconduct by prosecutors seeking a conviction at all costs, an over-reliance on testimony from jail informants who receive favours for their co-operation, and racial bias, particularly in the South.

Amnesty, which is campaigning against human rights abuses in the US, also criticised the superior courts for focusing solely on procedural issues and allowing death sentences to stand even when compelling new evidence came forward in favour of the defendant.

It also highlighted the anguish of being confined in a tiny cell, a few feet away from the execution chamber for years on end, "listening," in the words of former Florida inmate, Shakara Brown, "to that chair being tested twice a day and knowing it was being done in your honour".