When Pat Lykos ran for the office of Harris County District Attorney, she promised that there would be a new day in the criminal justice system. However, she recently proved that she's just another part of the same good ol' boy system that wrongfully sentenced me to death.
I spent nine years, five months, and 23 days in prison, most of them on death row waiting for my date with the executioner. I went through two trials and received several execution dates before I was found to be innocent of the murder of Cheryl Ferguson, a 16-year-old high school student in Conroe. My story is similar to the stories of 137 other exonerated death-row prisoners across the country, including 12 Texans who were found to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before their exonerations.
I was one of the two suspects taken in for questioning in connection with Cheryl Ferguson's murder. The deputy looked at both of us, saying, "One of you two is going to hang for this," before pointing at me. He said, "Since you're the n——-, you're elected."In my first trial I faced an all-white jury. One juror refused to convict, causing a hung jury. He was met with a constant barrage of harassment and threats after the trial ended, ridiculed for being a "n——- lover." It took a second all-white jury to finally convict and sentence me to death in 1981. A year later it was revealed that the majority of the murder investigation's physical evidence had mysteriously disappeared while under police control. Witnesses also recanted their testimony, and my attorneys found out that investigators had coerced their stories. Finally, when the blatant racism of my first two trials was discovered, the FBI decided to intervene.
Since my exoneration nearly 20 years ago, I've been waiting for a simple apology from the state of Texas.
Last week, Harris County state District Judge Kevin Fine began a historic hearing on a pretrial motion to declare the Texas death penalty statute unconstitutional as applied because of a substantial risk that innocent people have been, and will continue to be, sentenced to death and even executed. However, in a rare move, Lykos ordered the prosecutors to not participate and "stand mute" during the legal proceedings. They later successfully petitioned the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to halt the hearing.
A thorough review of Texas' death penalty system is long overdue. Lykos is obviously apprehensive about the facts being presented in this hearing. She must know that they will show how easy it is to be wrongfully convicted.
For every nine people executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated, one person has been exonerated. The most recent death-row exoneration was Anthony Graves, who was released in October after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.I was one of the lucky ones. No one knows how many of the more than 300 people awaiting execution on Texas' death row are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Even more disturbing, despite what Gov. Rick Perry and former Gov. George W. Bush might claim, no one can definitively say how many of the 464 people executed in Texas since 1982 were innocent. Some, like Cameron Todd Willingham, Carlos DeLuna and Claude Jones, did not get an adequate opportunity to prove their possible innocence. Unless we halt all executions and thoroughly review our broken capital punishment system, we will continue to convict — and possibly execute - innocent people.
Brandley is an exonerated death-row prisoner and a member of Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row survivors and their loved ones. He lives in Conroe.