Nothing shocks the conscience more than the thought of an innocent person being executed. Americans are appalled when they learn of people unjustly tried and hurriedly executed in other countries. People have great difficulty fathoming a government coldly taking the life of a blameless person. Such a spectacle is petrifying even to those strongly favoring capital punishment. In short, it is viewed as un-American and an affront to a civilized society to punish a person who is innocent, particularly with the ultimate sanction of execution.
There is a general misconception in the United States today that, with the rights afforded to the accused, innocent people are not executed. It is thought that even if mistakes occur at the trial level, the flaws will be discovered and cured through appellate and other post-conviction remedies before an execution can occur. This myth causes the public to believe that injustices involving life and death simply do not happen. It is always “they,” those in other parts of the world, not “we,” who do such things.
In reality, mistakes can and do often occur in our own capital punishment process. The inevitable result is that innocent people die at the hands of the state, regardless of available remedies. The legal system is composed of people, and people err. It is a long-recognized fact that to be human is to make mistakes.
No cases better demonstrate the part human fallibility plays in the capital conviction of the innocent than those of Richard Hauptmann and Jerry D. Bigelow. Fifty-five years ago, Richard Hauptmann went to the death chamber maintaining his innocence of the kidnapping and murder of Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., dubbed the “Crime of the Century.” Surrounded by a hostile atmosphere, the proceedings featured mistakes, fraud, concealment of evi- dence, witness intimidation, and false testimony. Additionally, Mr. Hauptmann, a German immigrant, was tried during the World War II era, when there was great public prejudice against Germans and German-Americans. Jerry D. Bigelow, a young Canadian, was convicted and spent nearly five years on death row in California, during which time he twice attempted suicide. At the beginning of the case, the legal representation of Mr. Bigelow was grossly ineffective. The conviction was later reversed on what many would view as a technicality, and upon retrial in 1988, Bigelow was found not guilty by the jury. Incredibly, however, the trial judge rejected the jury’s verdict, and entered a contrary finding of his own. Through aggressive appellate litigation, the controversial jury decision was finally accepted a year later. The penniless defendant had experienced a lifetime of victimization beginning with severe abuse by a violent father and nearly ending in his execution.
There are common denominators in these two cases, as with so many ofthose who languish on death row today: poverty; abysmal representation; overzealous prosecutors guided more by political ambition than a search for the truth; an arbitrary legal system; and trials often held in atmospheres of great prejudice.
Evidence against each defendant was quite strong and both appeared clearly guilty. The prosecution wove a web of damning circumstantial evidence against Mr. Hauptmann. Mr. Bigelow boasted on ten separate occasions that he had committed the execution-style murder, and, when arrested, he possessed the automobile and other property of the deceased. However, each man was innocent, despite the apparent strength of the prosecution’s evidence.
This is the story of two men victimized by a system which misfired. Richard Hauptmann died by that system. Today, his family continues to suffer from the tragedy which took place so long ago. With some fortunate breaks, Jerry Bigelow survived, but not before enduring years of agony. The scars will be there for life.
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