Students Witness Innocence in Death Row Cases

Five exonerated Death Row inmates recently visited the College of Criminal Justice.
Five exonerated Death Row inmates recently visited the College of Criminal Justice.

Five former Death Row inmates, who were exonerated from their crimes, visited Sam Houston State University to provide insight on the criminal justice system to future law enforcement, corrections and legal professionals.

“It’s archaic, it’s barbaric, and it’s morally wrong, especially for a country that holds itself out as a standard bearer for humanitarian interests all over the world,” Ron Keine, who was wrongly convicted in the kidnapping and murder of a University of New Mexico student in 1974. ”We send wheat, we send food, we send money, we send help all over the world, yet at home we kill our own people. We are one of the few nations that do it.”

The five men, including Keine, Clarence Brandley, Albert Burrell, Gary Drinkard and Jeremy Sheets, are members of Witness to Innocence, a group representing 138 Death Row inmates from seven states who were exonerated from their crimes. The organization is in Texas for the annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty in Austin on Oct. 22. The National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice hosted their visit to the College of Criminal Justice to educate students about the flaws in the system.

“You need to look at yourselves and look at your souls,” said Jeremy Sheets, who was on Death Row in Nebraska for the rape and murder of a 17-year woman based on a bad confession. “You have to make sure you are doing the right thing. It’s people like us, people just like us. It’s a racist system, and there is injustice for poor people and people of color.”

Since 1973, 138 people in 26 states have been released from Death Row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Among the reasons their cases were overturned were poor legal representation, racial prejudice, prosecutorial misconduct, erroneous evidence, false confessions, scientific evidence and eyewitness error, Witness to Innocence said.

Brandley said he spent nine years, nine months and 23 days on Death Row in Texas for the murder of a 16-year old Conroe cheerleader. His first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted during the second trial by what he said was an ambitious prosecutor.

“They only used capital punishment for one reason – to enhance his political career.” Brandley said. “We want to educate and enlighten people that there are flaws in the system.”

Keine said there is a lot of racial disparity in Death Penalty cases and that many occur in the Bible belt of the South.

“How can a Christian person like the death penalty,” Keine asked. “If you look at the Death Penalty and slavery, the states with the highest numbers of slaves also have the highest number of death penalty cases.

Drinkard said his Alabama capital case was overturned based on prosecutorial misconduct.

“It’s the same song that the attorneys don’t care,” said Drinkard, who was convicted of murdering a junk yard dealer based on the testimony of his half-sister and her husband. “They don’t want to investigate. A decent attorney should be taking a little bit of interest in the case….You should be good at what you do.”

Delia Perez-Meyer’s brother, Louis Castro Perez, still sits on Death Row in Texas, charged with the murder of three people. She said her brother found the victims and tried to help the nine-year old girl, who scratched him in the process. Perez-Meyers said she believes the Railroad Killer, Angel Maturino Resendiz, was responsible for the murders.

“Almost one-third of the people who were executed were innocent,” Perez-Meyer said.

Dr. Howard Henderson of the College of Criminal Justice hosted the group during his class. The presentation was arranged with the assistance of Dr. Dennis Longmire.

“I try to make sure that in class, my students get exposed to as many different dynamics as possible,” said Dr. Henderson. “It is one thing to read it in a book and another to see it in real life. I want them to meet individuals from all walks of life. You want students to recognize that although you have a policy, sometimes they just didn’t do it.”

Member of The Texas State University System