Exonerated After 22 Years on Death Row

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Curtis McCarty spent half of his life in prison - most of that time on death row - for a murder he did not commit.

EXONERATED - Curtis McCarty speaks to students at College of Saint Mary in Omaha last month. He was released from death row because of DNA evidence that found him not guilty of a 1982 murder.

On Feb. 21, McCarty talked about being wrongfully convicted and spending 22 years in prison to a crowded room of College of Saint Mary students. McCarty’s visit to Omaha was sponsored by Witness to Innocence, a non-profit organization founded by Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking.”

McCarty, who was released from prison May 11, 2007, had given only one public presentation about his case and exoneration prior to his talk at the College of Saint Mary. His story and degree of self-awareness captivated the attention of the audience. Several forensic science students stayed afterward to learn more and to view his pictures.

McCarty is one of more than 125 wrongfully accused people exonerated through DNA evidence from death row in the United States since the mid-1970s. He was convicted of the 1982 murder of Pamela Willis largely on the basis of fraudulent forensic evidence analyzed by Joyce Gilchrist, the chief forensic chemist for the state of Oklahoma.

McCarty and independent investigations by the FBI and the Innocence Project declared that Gilchrist committed perjury by lying about the forensic evidence and tampering with records.

His darkest days

McCarty described the revelation in 2001 that the FBI proved Gilchrist also had falsified forensic evidence in the case of his friend, Billy Fox, who had been executed by the state of Oklahoma just days before, as the “darkest moment that I endured.”

McCarty’s story raises fundamental questions about the death penalty.

“There is no dishonor in telling the truth,” McCarty advised students, referring to Gilchrist’s lies that led to his incarceration.

Raised in a military family, McCarty trusted the U.S. legal system and was “scared yet hopeful” when he initially faced first-degree murder charges. He knew he was innocent, believed in the integrity of the judicial system, and was certain that the truth would prevail in his case.

Death penalty not a deterrent

When asked if men he met on death row who were convicted of heinous crimes such as serial murders and rapes should be executed, McCarty responded that the prospect of the death penalty does not deter crime because criminals don’t believe they will be caught. Furthermore, he described conditions in prison as being more torturous than execution itself.

The U.S. Catholic bishops, in communion with the papacy, have a long tradition of calling for the replacement of the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole. In their most recent teaching on the subject - the 2005 pastoral letter “Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death” - the U.S. bishops echo earlier teaching that the death penalty is unfairly applied, violates the principle of human dignity, degrades all in society, and is not necessary in a system where criminals can be imprisoned without endangering the rest of society.

McCarty said he can never regain the 22 years he spent in prison, but his commitment to educating others about the death penalty is a way for him to share his personal story and to remind others of the horror of the death penalty.

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