The criminal justice system is far from perfect. I know that too well after spending over 16 years in a Kansas prison for a murder I didn’t commit.
Since my release from prison after new DNA and other evidence proved my innocence, I have no interest in dwelling on past injustices and giving in to bitterness. Yet that doesn’t mean we just forget the past and move on like nothing happened.
What happened to me and hundreds of others wrongfully convicted needs to serve as a catalyst to enact meaningful reforms to protect the innocent. One reform that should to be at the top of the list is ending the death penalty.
A variety of factors can send an innocent person to prison or, worse, death row: eyewitness errors, junk science, false confessions, snitch testimony, and prosecutorial misconduct. Needed reforms, such as videotaping interrogations, can help minimize these problems.
But we can never eliminate wrongful convictions entirely. The criminal justice system is a human system and as such will always be imperfect.
That is why the death penalty has no place in Kansas or anywhere for that matter. As an irreversible penalty, the death penalty demands perfection, and that is something our criminal justice system cannot guarantee.
Whenever the death penalty remains in place, so does the risk of executing an innocent person.
My case shows the danger in believing that Kansas somehow is immune from this risk. In 1999, I was wrongfully convicted of a murder in the small town of Oskaloosa. Though my murder occurred well after the advent of DNA technology, this technology failed to protect me at the time. By ignoring key evidence and relying on questionable testimony, officials became convinced of my guilt.
As my experience illustrates, the criminal justice system in real life does not always play out like a CSI episode. On TV, officials rely on a bunch of high-tech gadgets to always catch the bad guy without any doubt. Reality is a lot messier. In many cases – including death penalty cases – prosecutors rely on questionable witnesses or junk science when making their case at trial.
And at that point in the legal process, demonstrating your innocence becomes a monumental challenge. When the government says you’re guilty – and marshals all its resources to prove it – who is going to believe you? No matter how much you protest, people assume you must be guilty.
What happened to me is a tragedy. Every day, though, I am thankful that I am alive and have had the opportunity to rebuild my life. If someone is wrongfully executed, it is an injustice that the state is powerless to address.
Kansas can – and should – eliminate that risk by ending the death penalty now.
Floyd Bledsoe lives Hutchinson. He serves on the board for the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.