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Aerial view of the offices and death row area of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angloa.

Advocate staff photo by Richard Alan Hannon

The Legislature is considering a bill to repeal Louisiana’s death penalty. As someone who was nearly executed for a crime I didn’t commit, I hope our legislators recognize that as long as we have a death penalty we risk executing innocent people.

In 1987, my friend Albert Burrell and I were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of William and Callie Frost in Union Parish. There was no physical evidence connecting us to the crime, and the witnesses against us had motives to falsely implicate us.

The prosecution's primary witnesses against us were Albert Burrell’s ex-wife — furious that Albert had been awarded custody of their children — and a jailhouse snitch named Olan Wayne Brantley. After my arrest, I was put in a cell with Brantley, who told authorities that I confessed to him two days later. At trial, prosecutors hid that Brantley was given a deal on a pending charge in exchange for testifying against me. Several years later, Albert’s ex-wife recanted her testimony and admitted she lied to get custody of their children.

The prosecutor in our case, Dan Grady, eventually gave an affidavit saying that he viewed the case against us as ''so weak that the case should never have been brought to the grand jury.''

On March 4, 2000, I was granted a new trial after Judge Cynthia Woodard found that prosecutors had misled the jury and failed to turn over exculpatory evidence. I was released and all charges were dismissed in December 2000 after having served 13 years on death row for a crime I did not commit. Albert was released a month later. Albert was a mildly intellectually disabled man who could not afford a lawyer. If my appellate lawyers had not discovered what went wrong in my case, Albert could have been executed.

DNA tests eventually proved that the blood found at the victims' home did not belong to me or Albert. DNA evidence is only available in 10-15 percent of murder cases, so others may not be so “lucky.”

Unfortunately, our story is not unique. Albert and I are two of the 11 men wrongfully sentenced to death in Louisiana since 1973. Our state leads the nation in per capita exonerations from death row. All of these cases have at least one of the frequent causes of wrongful conviction and some have two or more: eyewitness misidentification, junk science, unreliable informant testimony, perjury or false accusations, false confessions, inadequate defense representation, and police or prosecutorial misconduct.

Nationally, since 1976 there has been one exoneration for every 9 executions. In the same time in Louisiana, there has been one exoneration for every 2.5 executions. This is a shameful track record, and it is only matter of time before the unfathomable happens: the execution of an innocent person.

But we have an alternative that removes this disgraceful possibility. Legislators can replace the death penalty with a life sentence, which keeps society safe while ensuring that mistakes can be corrected if new evidence is discovered. I urge them to take this historic opportunity to prevent wrongful executions by repealing the death penalty. The execution of an innocent person is a mistake our state cannot take back.

Michael Graham is a member of Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row exonerees. He spent 13 years on death row in Louisiana before being exonerated.

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