Three decades ago, I researched a Georgia case involving Jerry Lee Banks, a young black man sentenced to death for a white couple's murder after he reported finding their bodies in the woods.
Banks could afford to pay his defense lawyer only $10, plus a kettle of fish and collard greens. The lawyer never called independent witnesses who could have proven innocence. He created as an appeal for Banks a semi-religious poem never actually mailed to court. In sum, the facts of the Banks frame-up and prompt death sentence reversed my view on whether a completely innocent person could be convicted under our modern legal system.
A second Georgia miscarriage of justice involves the ongoing work of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, a native of the state and arguably the Court's most consistent justice in denying appeals from death-row inmates. He was the high court's liaison to Georgia for purposes of the appeal of Davis, shown above in a family photo with his mother, Virginia.
ahead, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis
University last week published a guide to help other journalists and
citizens better understand how the issues in the Troy Davis case may
exist in cases in their own state or city. Let's review below where we're
In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia,
the Supreme Court temporarily overturned every death penalty law in the
country. The Court reasoned that courts had proven likely to impose
death in an arbitrary manner that violated constitutional due process
rights. Several other Georgia cases were prominent in litigation before
the court over the next decade. State officials were eager to resume executions, especially in
Georgia, Texas and other Southern states.
But opponents kept showing that judges and juries were ordering death at very high rates for blacks, and particularly in cases with white victims.
this decade, I worked for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut,
primarily as a reporter covering federal courts and previously city
crime (including many murder cases). Because of what I could see of the
justice system, I felt reasonably confident that authorities were never likely to
execute a truly innocent person.
friend John J. Donohue III moved from a clerkship for
Connecticut's chief federal judge to work at the elite firm Covington
and Burling in Washington, DC, where his brilliance and passion for pro bono
work made him one of the nation's leading death penalty opponents.
During a conversation one evening in 1981 as he prepared to testify
before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he persuaded me to change from
the view that our system functioned fairly well in death cases. He recounted,
for example, the story of Banks: an unemployed, 23-year-old Georgian who
reported to local police in 1974 that he found the bodies of a white
man and a woman in the woods while he was deer-hunting.
researched the case, and became convinced of his innocence, not simply reasonable doubt, thanks to
4,000 hours of volunteer work by other pro bono attorneys in the
type of monumental effort that is increasingly difficult for attorneys
these days. Then, I authored for the Courant a lead editorial citing the
Banks case as a reason for us all to be wary of death penalty
That case is now long-forgotten, doubtless except by the defendant's three children orphaned as collateral damage from the prosecution. But I list the editorial on my bio page at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Reporting at Brandeis University, where I am a senior fellow. The reason? To remind myself, even if no one else is looking, how wrong I could be even in a life-and-death matter.
Donohue's knowledge grew out of comprehensive data that he shared more formally in a lengthy report on behalf of the America Civil Liberties Union during major Senate hearings on the death penalty in 1981. I've kept a copy of that testimony since then. With a doctorate also in economics, he has gone on to teach at Stanford Law School
and become one of the nation's most widely published scholars. Unlike
many who play it safe, he courageously challenges conventional wisdom
from both the left and right on a regular basis.
contrast, few have been more political and self-promotional in their
legal opinions than Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who vows to outlast all critics with
many more years on the Court.