Voices: Maurice Possley

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“Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate,” then-Governor George Ryan said after announcing a moratorium in 2000.

Ryan cited a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune that revealed a broken system, riddled by racism, wrongful convictions, false confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective defense attorneys, as being a major reason behind his decision.

“One of the things that Ryan was saying at the time was, ‘I can’t be sure,’ says Maurice Possley, one of the reporters who worked on the Tribune’s series and, with his two fellow reporters, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for their work.

“I don’t know how anyone could be sure, particularly when talking about such a large group of people, and in the face of so many cases that seemed sure at the time that later unraveled,” Possley says. “Even when convictions are obtained and the verdict is in, there is still the possibility that evidence can be discovered that proves innocence. Well over a hundred people in this country have been sentenced to death and later exonerated.”

The “height of arrogance” is how Possley describes Gov. Jerry Brown’s statement in 2012 that, because of the state’s “exquisite due process,” he didn’t believe there were any innocent people on California’s death row. Possley points to Vicente Benavides, who walked off San Quentin’s death row in April after 25 years, sentenced to die based on evidence that the California Supreme Court said, when it overturned his conviction, was “false, extensive, pervasive, and impactful.”

“Look how long it took for Benavides’ case to get unraveled,” Possley says. “There’s a guy who was clearly innocent, and it still took 25 years to free him. If you had asked Brown a year ago about him, he would have said: ‘That guy’s guilty.’”

California has 743 men and women on its death row, the largest death row in the Western Hemisphere. When asked about current efforts by several criminal justice groups, including Death Penalty Focus, to convince outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown to issue a moratorium in California before leaving office in January, Possley says, “I wish he would do it. If Jerry Brown were to do something like that it would put the burden on his successor to either fix it or get rid of it.”

He says that Ryan’s imposition of a  moratorium “put the burden on subsequent governors who would want to resume executions to take the position of ‘I’m confident in the system and so I’m going to start killing again.’ It was a huge step what Ryan did. It was very powerful. What George Ryan did had an overarching influence on the future.”

In fact, three years after announcing the moratorium, Ryan commuted the death sentences of the 167 men and women on death row to life in prison without parole (and in 2011, the state legislature voted to repeal the death penalty permanently).

In one sweep, Governor Ryan, a Republican, spared the lives of 163 men and four women who have served a collective 2,000 years for the murders of more than 250 people. His bold move was seen as the most significant statement questioning capital punishment since the Supreme Court struck down states’ old death penalty laws in 1972,” the New York Times wrote at the time.

Possley left the Tribune in 2008 and, after a year in the private sector as a writer and consultant on criminal justice issues, joined the Northern California Innocence Project at the University of Santa Clara’s School of Law as an investigator. He left the Innocence Project in 2011 to join the National Registry of Exonerations, which keeps detailed records of every known exoneration in the U.S. since 1989, where he researches and writes case summaries of exonerations.

“Sunshine is a great juror,” Possley says. “By exposing and bringing sunshine to these exonerations, we keep educators, lawmakers, and policy makers aware of the need to make changes that will hopefully bring integrity to the criminal justice system. I personally believe the establishment of the Registry was one of the most significant developments in this century in the field of criminal justice. We have a field of data we never had before, and it will only grow. It’s a growth industry because we will find more and more cases.”

Possley is surprisingly optimistic that the death penalty will be abolished in his lifetime. “I do feel that the arc is bending toward abolition,” he says. He notes that it was 11 years between the time Ryan imposed a moratorium and when the legislature abolished it. “People were still being convicted and sentenced to death but the suspension remained in place. What played a significant role is that at some point people acknowledged how expensive it was to do this and it became a pragmatic approach: ‘Well, we’re spending millions and millions of dollars and we’re not executing anyone so why should we spend this money if we’re not executing anyone?’ ”

And in California, “To the extent that its death row continues to grow, it becomes a situation where it’s going to take even more political will. And what’s discouraging is that the more people you put on death row, the more you increase the chances that you put innocent people there,” Possley says.

Maurice Possley was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times — once for Public Service (2000), and twice for National Reporting (2001, 2007). He won the Prize in 2008 for Investigative Reporting. He is also the author of three nonfiction books, Everybody Pays: Two Men, One Murder and the Price of Truth, The Brown’s Chicken Massacre, and Hitler in the Cross-Hairs: A GI’s Story of Courage and Faith.

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