Washington, luckily, has a reputation for a relatively clean, competent criminal justice system. We haven’t had a West Memphis Three case, or had to empty our death row because, as Seattle Times investigative reporter Ken Armstrong once wrote, “justice has been forsaken” by error and incompetence.
But a comprehensive effort by the new National Registry on Exonerations is a stark reminder that mistakes happen here too. By their count, 26 people were exonerated in Washington state between 1989 and 2012. Clark County is among the top 10 counties in the country for exonerations per-capita, including Thomas Kennedy in 2012.
The project by the law schools of Northwestern University the University of Michigan finds a promising trend in a report issued Tuesday. Although the number of exonerations nationwide now stands at a 1,050, law enforcement is cooperating in exonerations at an unprecedented rate. Among the 63 exoneration cases added in 2012, more than half had the help of police or prosecutors.
The database is an incredible resource, but is also limited. It doesn’t include James Baldwin, who moved to Seattle after being wrongfully convicted in Arkansas for the killing of three young boys in West Memphis, because he agreed to a plea deal in order get out after 18 years. A documentary on the case, “West of Memphis,” playing at the Varsity in Seattle, is gripping. He recently testified in Olympia.
It does include two I’ve covered — Dayna Christoph, in Spokane, and Ted Bradford, in Yakima — as well as those caught up in Wenatchee sex ring. Christoph is the prototype: developmentally disabled, badgered into a false confession, abandoned to a lousy defense lawyer.
Re-reading those cases, I’m more convinced than ever that we should pass House Bill 1504 and end the death penalty. Dead men can’t be exonerated, and we can’t afford that risk, no matter how clean our reputation.
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