by Douglas Warney, Guest essayist
I witnessed the debate this month when the New York state Senate considered a bill to bring back the death penalty for cop killers.
For more than three hours, our elected representatives argued the pros and cons
of capital punishment. I listened as the senators talked about a subject that
has never personally affected them. At times, I really wished I could have put
in my two cents!
In early 1996, I became the first person charged capitally under New York's new
death penalty statute. The district attorney at the time said I was a monster
who deserved to die. Fortunately, the grand jury indicted me only for
second-degree murder. Otherwise, I could have easily received the death penalty.
I was sentenced to only 25 years to life for a murder I had nothing to do with.
In some ways, I was lucky.
The only evidence against me was a confession that I was forced to sign after
several hours of harsh interrogation. You might think that no innocent person
would confess to a crime he or she didn't commit. But if so, you have no idea
what it's like to be locked in a small room for many hours with cops who are
convinced you're guilty. I got to a point where I was willing to say anything
just to get out of there.
Fortunately, the Innocence Project got involved in my case. And when my DNA was
finally tested, it proved my innocence. But by then I had served more than nine
years in state prison.
To be honest with you, accountability means nothing to me if we fail to learn
any lessons from our mistakes. I would like to see our representatives in the
state Legislature do everything possible to prevent what happened to me from
happening to anyone else.
Recognizing that the system makes mistakes means that we can't have a death
penalty. There's just no way to correct a mistake after someone has been
executed. But it also means that we should take reasonable steps to prevent what
happened to me from happening to others.
I really perked up during the Senate debate when Sen. Eric Schneiderman,
D-Manhattan, offered an amendment to the death penalty bill to protect the
wrongly accused. His amendment would have required the videotaping of
interrogations, better preservation of DNA evidence and more careful handling of
eyewitness identifications. All of these are reasonable precautions given that
the vast majority of wrongful convictions occur because of eyewitness
misidentifications and because of coerced "confessions" like mine.
I couldn't believe it when the Senate voted to defeat Schneiderman's amendment.
Deep inside I was crying, "Why are they doing this?" Are they crazy?!"
Warney, of Rochester, was released from prison last year after serving more than
nine years for a murder he did not commit.
From the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, May 22, 2007