He deserves his day in court

August 11, 2010

Mark Clements, of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, examines the case of a Mississippi man facing execution for a crime he says he didn't commit.

FREDERICK BELL could become the fourth person executed this year by the state of Mississippi if the courts refuse to take up his plea that evidence of his innocence be heard.

In May 1991, 19-year-old Bell was charged for the robbery and murder of store clerk Bert Bell (no relation). He was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1993, largely because his trial attorneys failed to even investigate the case or conduct DNA testing beforehand.

Since 1993, Bell has sat caged in a prison cell on Mississippi's death row, denied access to the courts, despite newly discovered evidence that strongly suggests he is completely innocent in this case.

Bell's conviction was based on the testimony of the state's star witness, Frank Coffey. However, since the trial, Coffey has come forward and recanted his testimony, stating in an affidavit that he was coerced by police to finger Bell. In addition, a member of the victim's family sat on the jury in Bell's trial, violating the principle that jury members should be impartial.

Texas protesters call for an end to the death penalty
Texas protesters call for an end to the death penalty (Matt Beamesderfer | SW)

Despite these glaring problems in a case that exhibits all signs of Jim Crow justice, the state of Mississippi continues to claim that Bell received a fair and adequate trial, and every court has denied him a hearing on his claims of new evidence.

Additional evidence exists that should have been DNA-tested before the trial--a bottle found at the crime scene, which the state used to build the case against him. Fingerprints that don't match Bell's were also recovered from the cash register, but Bell's lawyers failed to file motions to have the fingerprints examined, a procedure that could help to reveal the real criminal.

"For nearly two decades, the state of Mississippi has gotten away with sending my brother to death row, despite insufficient evidence to prove that he committed this crime, and now they want to execute him despite evidence that should have been tested years ago," said Tonja Bell-Glaspie, Bell's sister, in a telephone interview.

"This case, like many past cases within the criminal justice system, and death row in particular, clearly illustrates the problem of being denied the opportunity to present newly discovered evidence. The state of Mississippi has kept other innocent men on death row for decades. This is only a lynching, and it must stop."

IGNORING NEWLY discovered evidence has left many innocent men sitting on death row for years before being finally exonerated. In some cases, innocent men were executed because of the rush to judgment by prosecutors.

In Illinois, Anthony Porter came within days of his execution before a judge granted a stay so his lawyers could present evidence to show that he was mentally retarded at the time of his trial. This time afforded Porter's attorneys the opportunity to track down a witness who later admitted on video that he committed the crime.

Porter was released in 1999--his exoneration was one of the key factors that led to former Gov. George Ryan's decision to oppose the Illinois death penalty. In 2000, Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois, and in 2003, he commuted all Illinois death row prisoners' sentences to natural life, and granted pardons to four inmates who were beaten and tortured under the supervision of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

In Texas, death row prisoner Cameron Todd Willingham was denied the opportunity to present evidence from scientific experts that challenged the state's case that he had set a fire that caused the death of three of his family members. The experts' analysis showed that the fire was accidental, and Willingham had nothing to do with it. In fact, the experts would have been able to show a systematic pattern of witnesses for the prosecution in arson cases using outdated methods to determine the causes of fires.

But that testimony was never heard. Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Willingham a stay of execution to bring his claims before a court, and Willingham was put to death with the new evidence of his innocence unheard.

All across this country, evidence has surfaced in many cases that exonerated men and women of crimes that put them on death row for years. For the courts to deny Bell a hearing on his claims would be criminal.

It should be a crime to lock people up and deny them the right to prove their innocence. Above all, death row prisoners should be afforded the right to show that there is doubt about their guilt before being put to death.

But this is a country doesn't uphold the true meaning of reasonable doubt, and its justice system has insisted on strict adherence of rules about when evidence must be submitted even when there are obvious claims of evidence. Elected officials have gotten it wrong time and time again when it comes to the death penalty.

In true fairness to the victim of the crime and in the interests of justice, Bell's case should be re-examined by the court system to weigh the newly discovered evidence. No one should be executed when a witness has recanted and when proper testing of evidence could prove the innocence of someone facing death.

Further Reading

From the archives