On 27th March 2014, Iwao Hakamada, 78, was removed from death row after serving 47 years in solitary confinement for murder in Japan. He was released from prison after new DNA evidence was made available to the courts which revealed that he may never have committed the crime after all.
Unfortunately, the case of Iwao Hakamada is not uncommon. As we mark the 12th World Day Against the Death Penalty, we remember the many victims of miscarriages of justice. The reality is that wrongful convictions occur in every judicial system, however sophisticated, carrying the risk that innocent people will be executed where the death penalty is applied.
Our recently published report “The inevitability of error: the administration of justice in death penalty cases” provides a snapshot of cases and research findings and demonstrates that no criminal justice system is flawless. In the United States alone, more than 140 people have been removed from death row in the last 40 years because of fresh evidence of their innocence. The recent case of Leon Brown and Henry McCollum, two intellectually-disabled half-brothers who spent more than 30 years in a North Carolina prison for a crime they did not commit, is yet another example. Just two days ago, the Texas Court of Appeal released Manuel Velez after nine years of imprisonment (four of which were on death row), following evidence showing that Velez could not have committed the murder.
There is no perfect justice system and error is inevitable. There is overwhelming evidence that wherever the death penalty is imposed, there is always a risk that innocent people will be convicted and executed. The gravest mistake that any criminal justice system can make is the infliction of the death penalty on an innocent person.