- The Washington Times - Friday, December 27, 2002

A leading death penalty opponent says that the number of exonerations in capital cases this year is fueling support for the abolition of capital punishment, even though more people were executed in 2002 than the year before and his numbers have come under vigorous criticism.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), says 102 condemned prisoners have been "exonerated" since the mid-1970s, increasing what he sees as public fears that an innocent person will be executed.
"More of the public are insisting that if the death penalty cannot be administered accurately and fairly, then it should not be administered at all," Mr. Dieter said.
However, critics point out that not all of those 102 inmates were cleared or "exonerated" of the killings for which they were condemned to die.
Some whom Mr. Dieter called "exonerated" later admitted the killings, and critics said many others on that list just reflected the difficulty of retrying old cases.
Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs was on the list after being freed from 16 years on Florida's death row for killing state Trooper Philip A. Black and Canadian Constable Donald Irwin. Both were slain by her gun in her presence, and she fled in a trooper's car with two men. When her first-degree murder conviction was set aside and she faced retrial, Jacobs pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to time served.
"This kind of effort can have an impact on the public, which could be concerned that the whole truth is not getting out," said Kent S. Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., which often joins appeals on the side of police and prosecutors.
The DPIC does not list any executed person among the "exonerated."
The 71 executions in 2002 were up by five from a year earlier but did not reach 1999 and 2000 levels, with 98 and 85 executions respectively, the peak years since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
Executions in 2002 numbered 33 in Texas, seven in Oklahoma, six in Missouri, four each in Georgia and Virginia, and three each in Florida, South Carolina and Ohio.
DPIC was encouraged by what Mr. Dieter called "further isolation" of executions, with 13 states carrying out death sentences in 2002, mostly in the South, and "exonerations" of four condemned prisoners during a year when the death-row population was about 3,700.
Among those he called "exonerated" was Clarence Smith of Louisiana, who was convicted in 1998 in federal court of crimes that included the death for which he was acquitted on retrial in state court.
The first 48 names of the 102 came from a House of Representatives subcommittee staff report in 1993, after which Mr. Dieter's DPIC took over the chore and applied his standard of counting those whose convictions are reversed and who are then acquitted at retrial or for whom charges are dismissed.
Among those listed as innocent is Troy Lee Jones, of Fresno, Calif., who was sentenced to die for shooting his girlfriend to keep her from testifying against him in the strangulation murder of a burglary victim. Prosecutors dismissed charges because evidence and witnesses were lost during the 15 years he was in prison.

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