Friday, February 24, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Imminent death by execution doesn’t guarantee the truth

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
February 24, 2012

Last week, Robert Brian Waterhouse was executed by lethal injection in Florida. He was the fourth person executed in 2012. He was convicted in 1980 of murdering Deborah Kammerer of St. Petersburg, Florida whose body was found in the Tampa Bay. Kammerer had been beaten, raped and dragged into the bay, where she drowned. In 1966, Waterhouse was convicted of second-degree murder for killing a 77-year-old Long Island woman during a burglary. He was sentenced to life but was paroled after eight years.

Waterhouse remained defiant to the end. He offered no contrition or remorse. His final words, reported by the Wall Street Journal, "You are about to witness the execution of a wrongly convicted and innocent man.” Waterhouse directed blame at everyone but himself -- corrupt prosecutors, a prejudiced judge and a "rubber-stamp" appellate system .

Waterhouse’s final words were reminiscent of Virginia’s Roger Coleman, executed in 1992. Coleman was arrested in 1986 for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. Coleman was the personification of a cold blooded killer. Before police zeroed in on him as a suspect, he served as a pallbearer at his victim’s funeral.

As Coleman sat strapped to the electric chair, moments before his execution, he made a final statement. "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven, I hope Americans will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.”

Coleman’s case had generated a great deal of attention. As his execution date approached, Coleman was on the cover of Time. Pope John Paul II requested clemency on his behalf. Centurion Ministries, an ardent supporter, continued to fight to clear Coleman’s name for years after his execution.

Finally, in 2006, as Virginia Governor Mark Warner was about to leave office he became the first governor in the nation to order post-execution DNA testing. Coleman supporters and death penalty abolitionists were in the unenviable position of hoping that an innocent man had been executed. Coleman was going to be the poster-child for dismantling the death penalty.

However, the anti-death penalty movement took a hit. DNA confirmed that Coleman did, in fact, rape and kill his sister-in-law. Death penalty opponents remain unable to point to a single wrongful execution.

James C. McCloskey, Centurion Ministries’ executive director, said he felt betrayed by Coleman. "How can somebody, with such equanimity, such dignity, such quiet confidence, make those his final words even though he is guilty?" McCloskey said.

It has long been accepted law that a dying declaration has the indicia of trustworthiness. A dying declaration is admissible as an exception to hearsay pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 804 (b)(2). Waterhouse, and certainly Coleman, cause one to pause when accepting the reliability of a statement made in contemplation of death.

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