At approximately 1:30 a.m. this morning, the federal government executed Lisa Montgomery in Terre Haute, Indiana. Ms. Montgomery was the first woman in 67 years to be put to death by federal authorities, since Bonnie Brown Heady and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953.
Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs, who were also scheduled to die this week in an ongoing spate of federal executions, were granted stays of execution after contracting COVID-19. The government is actively appealing the stays.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 173 people have been exonerated from death row over the last 48 years. Included among that group are 23 Innocence Project clients and survivors. Unsurprisingly, many of these death row exonerees have become ardent advocates against the death penalty. Indeed, organizations like Witness to Innocence, an exoneree-led abolition organization, have played an important role in the recent death penalty bans in New Hampshire, California, and Washington.
Decades of Innocence Project exoneration cases document the fundamental flaws in the administration of the death penalty, and the grave risks it poses to innocent lives. For example, Black people are condemned to death at an arbitrary and disproportionate rate and account for more than 40% of people currently on death row.
Further, studies repeatedly show that Black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder if the victim was white, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
And the Death Penalty Information Center reports that those who are convicted of killing white victims are over four times more likely to be executed than those convicted of killing Black victims.
Several of our clients, including Eddie Lee Howard, who was exonerated just days ago — on Jan. 8 — are Black men who were wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death in cases involving a white victim. Mr. Howard’s conviction and death sentence for the murder of an elderly white woman were largely based on bite mark evidence, an invalid forensic method. He spent the last 26 years on Mississippi death row, until he was freed in December 2020. With powerful DNA evidence and new forensic science findings pointing to his innocence, Mr. Howard was then exonerated. He was represented by the Innocence Project and Mississippi Innocence Project.
Robert DuBoise, Paul Hildwin, Clemente Aguirre, and Kirk Bloodsworth were each wrongfully convicted of capital murder and wrongfully condemned to death. They felt compelled to speak out about the urgent need to stop upcoming federal executions:
“I was very saddened by the killing of Lisa Montgomery when I saw it on the news this morning. It hits close to home. A lot of the people I knew on death row were executed while I was there … when they took my next door neighbor to death watch, that was the last time I saw him. It’s not a good feeling at all. I know there are more innocent people like me still behind bars, and facing execution. I spent 3 years on death row and 34 years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit. I deeply believe that until we can fix the severe flaws of the criminal justice system, the government has no right to kill people.”
—Robert DuBoise, exonerated in 2020 after a total of 37 years in prison and three years on death row
“You never know how many innocent people have already been murdered. It took 35 years for me to get my freedom back. I saw that on the news this morning about Lisa Montgomery and it just broke my heart. Executions do not do anything but cause more victims. It is too late for Lisa but I beg the U.S. government to see the humanity of Corey Johnson, and Dustin Higgs and stop this senseless rush to execute them.”
—Paul Hildwin, freed in 2020 after 29 years on death row and six years in prison
“I am one of 173 innocent people who narrowly avoided execution in this country because the system got it wrong. My heart is full of sadness knowing that even after all of these wrongful convictions, life is being taken. I can’t believe this is still happening in the U.S. It’s time for change all around, not just for pieces of the law. ”
—Clemente Aguirre, exonerated in 2018 after 10 years on death row and five years in prison
“The system failed Lisa Montgomery at every turn. From failing to protect her from a childhood of horrific abuse to providing her with incompetent defense when she needed it most, to the final act of execution. I hope we find humanity in the cases of Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs and stop the killing.”
—Kirk Bloodsworth, first person exonerated by DNA in the U.S., exonerated in 1993 after being incarcerated on death row, and executive director of Witness to Innocence