How to correct mistakes on death row: Bury them


January 29, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

When Isidore Zimmerman was 21, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair.

According to the prosecution, Zimmerman had supplied the gun used in a restaurant holdup in which a detective was killed.

But a few hours before Zimmerman was to be electrocuted, the governor of New York commuted his sentence to life in prison.

Zimmerman steadfastly maintained his innocence and spent the next 24 years in prison trying to prove it. Finally, in 1961, the state court of appeals overturned Zimmerman's conviction and freed him.

Twenty years after that, Gov. Hugh Carey signed special legislation allowing Zimmerman to sue the state of New York for damages.

In July 1983, Zimmerman received a check for $1,007,763.75 for "loss of earnings, medical expenses, loss of liberty and civil rights, loss of reputation and mental anguish."

Three months later, at age 66, Zimmerman died of a heart attack.

Charles Bernstein's death sentence was commuted minutes before his execution in Washington, D.C. Two years later, he was found innocent, released and pardoned by the president.

Anastarcio Vargas was ready for his execution in Texas. His head had been shaved and he was preparing to make the final walk to the electric chair. But minutes before the execution was to be carried out, his sentence was commuted to life. Four years later, he was pardoned, released and awarded $26,500 by the state of Texas.

Tuesday, the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay $4.5 million to each of two men who had spent 17 years in prison for a murder they did not commit.

Clarence Chance and Benny Powell, freed last March, had been framed by police officers, who are now under investigation. Chance and Powell had been convicted in 1975 of the murder of a Los Angeles police detective. Their case was exposed by a New Jersey organization that specializes in helping the "the convicted innocent."

Not everybody is so lucky, if you can call spending 17 years in prison lucky.

From 1930 to 1977, 435 men in this country were executed for rape, and in June, 1977, five men were awaiting execution for rape.

But on June 29, 1977, the Supreme Court decided that execution for rape was cruel and unusual punishment.

But what of the 435 men who had already been executed for that crime?

Tough luck, fellas. Bad timing.

In September 1984, Tim Baldwin was put to death in Louisiana, even though some felt the case against him was not exactly airtight.

Before she died, the murder victim told police she did not know her assailant. Yet the victim was godmother to one of Baldwin's children and could have been expected to know him.

After he was convicted, a motel registration slip was produced showing that Baldwin was 70 miles away at the time of the murder. But Baldwin was executed anyway.

And the Supreme Court ruled this week that new evidence is not enough reason to halt an execution.

But one other aspect of the Baldwin case makes it of special interest:

The state had offered Baldwin a reduced sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. But Baldwin refused, stating that he was innocent.

After he was found guilty, the state then put him to death.

Doesn't seem quite fair, somehow. After all, maintaining one's innocence is a constitutional right.

But the state knows how to play the game: If the guy doesn't plead guilty, he faces death. So maybe you can get him to plead guilty even if he is innocent. Because how many people are willing to take the risk?

Baldwin took it. And he lost. So let that be a lesson to others.

Was Baldwin innocent? Who knows?

A study by Tufts University says that in the last century 23 people were found innocent after they were executed.

There are 2,636 people awaiting the death penalty in this country. And the Supreme Court wants to speed their executions.

How many of these people are innocent?

We don't know. But let's hurry up and kill them before we find out.

Because the American system of justice has a very conclusive way of handling its mistakes in such cases:

It buries them.

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