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Will Ohio Execute An Innocent Man?

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Here we go again, this time in Ohio.

There, death row inmate Kevin Keith is scheduled to be executed on September 15, despite strong new evidence of his innocence. Keith was convicted in 1994 for a shooting spree that killed three people and wounded three others.

Eyewitness testimony was the primary evidence used to convict Keith. Along with the fact that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, the new evidence discredits the eyewitness identification in this case. The evidence also identifies an alternative suspect, Rodney Melton, who may have actually committed the crime for which Keith was convicted. Keith has an alibi for the time of the crime, supported by four witnesses.

No court has considered the entirety of the evidence in this case. Therefore, it appears that there is reasonable doubt as to Keith's guilt. And there is no excuse to execute someone when there is reasonable doubt that you've got the right guy.

Nevertheless, on August 19, the Ohio Parole Board rejected Keith's clemency petition by a vote of 8-0. Charles Keith, the convicted man's brother, described the Board's demeanor during the review as "cold" and "like a death squad." This seems to suggest that they are more interested in expediency than true justice. And it seems to suggest that they are willing to risk the possibility of executing an innocent man.

Sadly, Keith's situation is not unusual. Cases are currently in the courts in Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere in which death row inmates are fighting for the right to prove their innocence. If any of them succeed, they will be among the lucky ones. Some are not so lucky.

In 2007, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) published a report titled "Innocent and Executed", which highlighted four cases in which people were apparently executed for crimes that they did not commit. And those four are just the ones we know about.

One of those cases, that of Cameron Todd Willingham, made headlines last year when The New Yorker published an investigative article on the case. Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three daughters. However, a forensic review of the case led to the conclusion that "a finding of arson could not be sustained." In other words, the fatal fire for which Willingham was executed was probably just an accident.

It's no secret that lawyers, judges, juries, and crime labs make mistakes, and innocent people are convicted of crimes that they did not commit. In fact, to date more than 250 people in the U.S. have been exonerated as a result of post-conviction DNA testing. But, again, they are the lucky ones.

Given the proven fallibility and unreliability of the "justice" system, how many others may have been executed for crimes that they did not commit? And how many more innocent people will be executed in the future?

Why should Ohio or any other state take any more chances?

In the case of Kevin Keith, due to die on September 15, the final verdict now lies with Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. I hope he will do the right thing and grant clemency. Governor Strickland's office can be reached by phone at (614) 466-3555 or online at


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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)

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