Virginian-Pilot Editorial – Unwise expansion of death penalty
This week, as Virginia’s lawmakers debated whether to expand the death penalty, the state prepared to exonerate a 56-year-old man who has spent his adult life being punished for a 1978 rape in Williamsburg that he didn’t commit.
Based on the victim’s identification, Bennett S. Barbour, then 22, was convicted and spent 4½ years in prison. DNA tests unavailable then – and denied to the man in 2004 – now show that he is innocent of the rape of a college student 34 years ago.
Since 2005, when Virginia began testing old biological evidence, at least nine defendants have been found innocent of decades-old charges. Since the late 1980s, 289 defendants in the U.S. have been exonerated; 17 were on death row.
Barbour’s case is the latest reminder that, sometimes with faulty eyewitnesses and sometimes because of corrupt police, our criminal justice system has convicted innocent people and sent them to prison or death row.