Sunday, September 12, 2010

Eyewitness Testimoney Raises 'Legitimate Questions"

By Sharon Danann
Published Sep 10, 2010 9:32 PM

On Sept. 2, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, bowing to the pressure of online petitions, letters, calls and e-mails from thousands of supporters, commuted Kevin Keith’s death sentence to life in prison due to “real and unanswered questions.” In doing so he set aside the unanimous recommendation against clemency of the Ohio Parole Board.

As highlighted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the prosecution altered the statements of a 6-year-old girl regarding Keith’s photo in a lineup, retaining the first few words of her phrase that “it looks like him” but failing to include her caution that the man “did not have a bump on his head.” (Aug. 22) Keith has a distinct rise in the center of his head.

The decision came less than two weeks before Keith’s Sept. 15 execution date. Keith has always maintained his innocence and has appeals procedures pending.

WW spoke to a number of Keith’s supporters and death penalty abolitionists to get their reaction to the commutation.

“We will not stop until his case is thrown out,” the Rev. Renard Torrence, Keith’s childhood friend and tireless advocate, said. “This case blows open the whole issue of eyewitness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. This could help so many people.”

Strickland’s statement pointed to “many legitimate questions that, in theory, could ultimately result in his conviction being overturned altogether,” Torrence said, noting that the governor indicated his willingness to review the matter again for possible further action.

Huge numbers of prisoners have been convicted largely based on eyewitness testimony. Juries typically do not understand how faulty witness memory may be or how lineups can be manipulated, not to mention the deals offered to witnesses to provide false testimony.

Keith’s case, demonstrating the substantial flaws in this kind of evidence, could potentially help many who are languishing behind bars. This would include Troy Davis; political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Lucasville uprising prisoners and Imam Jamil Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown); and many other innocent people on death row. The implications for the legal system as a whole are enormous.

“This opens up some eyes for justice-loving people as to the workings of the penal institution,” declared Abdul Qahhar. “As chairman of the [Cleveland] New Black Panther Party, I’ve worked with the Jericho [Movement] and with Amnesty [International]. We’ve got many ancestors who need amnesty. I commend the activists who have been working to expose the system of tainted evidence, including what we call snitches.”

Kunta Kenyatta, author of the book, “Life after Life: A Successful Return to Society,” said, “I didn’t think the governor would have the courage to give clemency. They usually only give it in a lame duck session.” Kenyatta’s friend Siddique Abdullah Hasan is on death row for his alleged leadership role in a Lucasville, Ohio, prison uprising in 1993.

“I am so happy when something good finally happens in this rotten criminal injustice system! Hats off to all who worked to make the commutation in Ohio possible,” added Gloria Rubac, organizer with the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement.

“Shaka Sankofa was executed in Texas because of one wrong eyewitness identification,” Rubac continued. “The state of Texas has had more DNA-based exonerations than any other state in the country. Since most cases do not have DNA evidence to test, I wonder how many others are sitting in cages in prison or waiting on an execution because they have not been able to prove their innocence.” According to the Innocence Project of Texas, 80 percent of the first 40 exonerations in Texas involved faulty identification.

Theresa Lyons, chairperson of Loved Ones Of Prisoners, whose grandson is on Ohio’s death row, is encouraged. Her comment: “This is what we all have been hoping for.”
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