Last year the Innocence Project recorded a milestone. A Louisiana man who had been on death row for fifteen years became the three-hundredth wrongfully convicted person to be exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence.
But science is not infallible. The Washington Post recently reported that the FBI is investigating at least twenty-seven death penalty convictions in which its own forensic analysis of hair samples “may have mistakenly linked defendants to crimes with exaggerated scientific testimony.” FBI officials will “disclose problems in capital cases even after a defendant has been executed.”
More than eighty years ago, long before modern advances in forensics, Yale Law professor Edwin Borchard wrote Convicting the Innocent, Errors of Criminal Justice, documentating sixty-five cases of wrongful convictions. Borchard’s study refuted the district attorney of Worcester County, Massachusetts, who, around the time of the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti, reportedly said, “Innocent men are never convicted. Don’t worry about it, it never happens. It is a physical impossibility.”
The eighty-sixth anniversary of the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti will occur in less than two weeks, on August 23. On such an occasion, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on the life of their executioner.
Robert Elliott came of age at the end of the nineteenth century fascinated by “electricity and its wonders.” As fate would have it, soon after the electric chair was approved as a so-called humane replacement for the gallows, Elliott began his career as an electrical engineer. He worked in New York prisons for many years, and later as an independent contractor.
His duties included executions. Yet Elliott opposed capital punishment. He believed it had no deterrent effect and “serves no useful purpose.”
“Each time I send a human being hurtling into eternity…, I realize that I am partly responsible for his death,” Elliott wrote in his memoirs, Agent of Death. “But my responsibility is no greater than that of any member of the society that demanded this person’s life.” His responsibility, he said, was certainly no greater than that of the district attorney, the jury, the sentencing judge, the pardon board, the warden, “and all the others upon whose shoulders rests the obligation of the state’s legal killings.”
Elliott believed that “man should not be permitted to destroy the one thing which cannot be restored—life.” By the time he wrote those words, he had thrown the switch on three hundred eighty-seven prisoners in six states.