Examining the death penalty as wrongful convictions prove disturbingly common

Nathaniel Woods’ family mourn his fate after he was executed in March 2020 after an extremely controversial trial. Anthony Ray Hinton spent 28 years on death row before he was exonerated.
10:42 | 04/07/21

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Transcript for Examining the death penalty as wrongful convictions prove disturbingly common
As an actor, as someone from an underserved community, I've made it my personal mission to use my platform to bring some real change to the criminal justice system. Tonight, we look squarely at the impact of mass incarceration and the death penalty on real people. Here's ABC news chief justice correspondent Pierre Thomas. I'm biased about him, because he's my oldest son, my first-born son. He was my first defender. We actually got to Mercury before the paramedics got there. We just had a couple of words with each other and the paramedics came. Early that morning, they told us that he didn't make it. I went back to see him. He was still warm. And there was a little tear coming from his eye, I remember that. And -- yeah. It was only the three of us that grew up in our household. It was my older brother, my older sister and I'm the baby. He was my big brother, my only brother. I think about all the different things that I could've done, or if I should've done this, or if I should've done that. Would he still be here? My life, never thought about anything other than getting up every morning, enjoying life. My mom brought us up to respect everybody. Here I am, 36 years later. I didn't win. The victim family didn't win. Who won? My body went to death row, but my mind never did. The death penalty in this country isn't a topic that can be resolved by asking whether people deserve to die for the crimes they've committed. I think the threshold question is, do we deserve to kill? On June 17th, 2004, police raided a suspected drug house near Birmingham, Alabama. Nathaniel woods was surrendering when his cousin, Kerry Spencer, opened fire on the police killing three officers. Woods was arrested along with Spencer and charged as an accomplice. Prosecutors argued woods lured the officers in to be gunned down. But Spencer claims woods played no role in the shooting. Your brother did not pull the trigger. He did not have a gun. He didn't shoot anybody. I mean, what did you arrest him for? He ran just like anybody else would. He ran for his life. And they charged him with the actual murders. Did he have a sense that the system would work for him? He actually thought that the system would work because he didn't do anything wrong. So he had no reason to believe that he could ever be convicted of it, that he could ever be executed. The judge -- you remember what he said? Yeah. They sentenced him to death. It was probably the hottest day in July that I could ever remember. My mother was in there making some lemonade. I went in to get a glass. And she said, "Well, you got time to go cut that grass." 25 minutes into cuttin' the grass, I just happened to look up. And there stood two white gentlemen I never seen before. And one of them said, "We're looking for Anthony ray Hinton." On this day in 1985, Anthony ray Hinton was accused of the double homicide of two restaurant owners in Birmingham. The main evidence against him was his mother's old Smith and Wesson revolve errevolver, which the state claimed matched the bullets at the crime scene. I said, "Oh, you got the wrong person." I said, "Oh, I haven't done any of that." He looked at me like he had no use for me at all. And he said, "Number one, a white man is gonna say you shot him. Whether you shot him or not, I don't care. He said number two, you're going to have a white prosecutor. Number three, you're going to have a white judge, number four, you're going to have an all-white jury. And we got a gun that we going to say is the murder weapon." He said, "And do you know what that spell?" And he repeated the word, "Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction," five times. Miss Greer's son, Mercury, was only 21-years-old when he was shot and killed in 1999. The alleged shooter already had a felony conviction on his record and now faced a capital murder charge. When I saw another young black man standing there, who happened to be the young man who had killed my son, what was my asking for him to get life or the death penalty going to do? Knowing that the justice system was already against him and my son, I didn't want to help that system. It doesn't need any help. Like I told the judge, whatever you do today, judge, it's not going to bring Mercury back. We are haunted by a 400-year curse that was created when we embraced these narratives of racial difference. These ideologies of racial hierarchy and white supremacy. And the death penalty was a response to the inability to continue lynching people with impunity. You call it a what? A stepchild of lynching. Absolutely. Anthony ray Hinton could not afford an attorney and one was assigned to him by the court. That detective proved prophetic, and Mr. Hinton faced a white judge, a white prosecutor and all-white jury. He was convicted and sent to death row. Death row, first and foremost, is pure hell. Somebody is hollering all night, all day. You smell the flesh of another human being that they just killed. M cell was 30 yards away from the execution chamber. I had to try and keep the smell of fresh cut grass in my mind for as long as I could, because that's the last thing I smelled of the free world. And in your quietest moments when it's just you, and you're thinking of him, what do you think? I think, what if I had fought a little harder? What if I had stood up in the courtroom at that litigation and said something to the judge? Would he still be here? He has kids that lost their mom to cancer and now you took their dad? If you presume someone dangerous and guilty because of their color, then it's going to be a lot easier to convict them. You know, the supreme court had an opportunity to strike down the death penalty in 1987, after it had been presented with really compelling evidence about racial disparities and it was disappointing to read that decision. The court said, "A certain quantum of discrimination, a certain amount of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty, it's just, well, inevitable." After 13 years on death row, Mr. Hinton's case was taken on by attorney Bryan Stevenson. Three ballistics experts established that the bullets from the old revolver did not match the bullets from the crime scene. But the state of Alabama refused to look at the evidence for another 12 years. After the U.S. Supreme court intervened, Mr. Hinton was exonerated. Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, lord! So it still brings back emotions? I had always made my mom a promise that we would be together again. And my mom just couldn't hold on any longer. I didn't get a chance to -- to say good-bye. This is a system that most people would have you to believe is broke. The system is not broke. The system won exactly the way it was designed to win. When George Floyd, the video came out and it's like, we were there witnessing it in real time, what was your reaction when you saw it? Couldn't bear to look at it. It's a new form of lynching. And you believe capital punishment is -- I often say, they brought the trees from the outside and brought it on the inside. I do not support the death penalty. I would say to people that say "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life, is a way of closure." I look at closure totally a different way. I want healing. I want healing. Of course, the young man had to do some time for killing my son, of course. There was a penalty for that. His life? No. You're choosing who you want to die. You're killing people whether you know they're innocent -- innocent or not. Once you find out that they are innocent, you can't bring them If we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent, that tolerates the kind of error that our system has produced. If we have a criminal justice system that has allowed this kind of racial bias that we've seen over and over, we do not deserve to kill. And that's the question that I think states have to grapple with before they allow another person to be executed. This old building and my soul has got to move my soul has got to move my soul has got to move

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