A man against wrongful convictions
Caitlin Taylor | Collegio Reporter
Rob Warden is an outspoken critic of the death penalty and he was invited to speak at PSU last week in conjunction with the upcoming play, “Dead Man Walking.”
“If you’re asking about my opinion on wrongful convictions and the death penalty,” Warden said. “Then I am completely against it.”
Warden spoke primarily on the phenomenon of false confessions, where someone confesses to a crime he or she did not commit. Warden spoke of stories dating back to the 1800s that had people confessing to crimes they did not commit because they were coerced by prosecutors or officers. Years later, evidence would be presented proving they did not commit those crimes.
“We know that, since 1989, the dawn of the DNA age, 877 wrongful convictions have been overturned,” Warden said. “That’s when a person has been restored to legal innocence by exculpatory evidence not presented at trial.”
Warden says this number didn’t represent people who were possibly innocent, and had their cases overturned because of a possible legal technicality.
Warden says that death penalty supporters claim there have been no wrongful executions in the United States, yet there is documented proof that the first wrongful execution dates back to 1887.
“It was a sad case of a man named William Jackson Marion, who had been a roommate and good friend of John Cameron in Clay County, Kan. in 1872,” Warden said. “The two left Kansas, saying that they were going west to work on the railroad, but a few days later Marion returned without Cameron.”
Warden says a body was found 11 years later wearing clothes witnesses identified as belonging to Cameron. On the basis of this supposed evidence, Marion was indicted, convicted and sentenced to death. He was hanged on March 28, 1887, still trying to prove his innocence.
“Three years later, Cameron was found living in Kansas,” Warden said. “He said he had to run away to avoid a shotgun wedding and had no idea his friend Marion had been accused of his death.”
Warden also spoke of two other cases. One was on the first documented case of a wrongful conviction that happened in 1819 in Vermont. Jesse and Stephen Boorn were convicted in the alleged murder of Russell Colvin.
“Colvin was found alive after the Boorn brothers were convicted of killing him,” Warden said. “He returned to prove the crime had not been convicted in time to save Stephen Boorn from execution.”
The other case was about the first time someone who had been convicted of a crime was exonerated by DNA evidence.
“This case happened in 1989 in Chicago,” Warden said. “Gary Dotson had been convicted of raping a girl on the south side of Chicago. The girl who accused Dotson of rape recanted a few years later out of guilt.”
Warden, who was investigating the case for the Chicago Daily News at the time, had read about DNA testing and suggested the testing to Dotson. Those tests proved that Dotson couldn’t have committed the crime.
Warden has come a long way in his pursuit to abolish the death penalty.
Warden, a former editor and investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily News, published his first death penalty expose in 1982. It was a story that laid out the weak, contradictory evidence against one of the condemned men in a gang of later-exonerated convicts who came to be known as the ‘Ford Heights Four.’
Warden then took up the cause of death row inmates Darby Tillis and Perry Cobb, later freed on grounds of innocence. He followed that up with an examination of the case against Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, who were sentenced to death for the murder of Jeanine Nicarico. They too were freed, about a decade later, when the state acknowledged that another man had committed the crime.
Warden spoke passionately about abolishing the death penalty across the nation, and he made a compelling point to those in the audience.
“In the state of Illinois, before we abolished it last year, 305 men and women had been sentenced to death,” Warden said. “20 of those have now been exonerated. That is an error rate in excess of 6 percent. And I don’t think the Illinois criminal justice system is any worse when it comes to convicting innocent people, or any better when it comes to exonerating them, than anyone else. That is the reality of the American death penalty and why we say we need to abolish it.”
Rob Warden is the executive director for the center on wrongful convictions at Northwestern University and Law