Courtesy, Joseph Dole

Courtesy, Joseph Dole

Why I Am Still on Death Row

by Joseph Dole

I was never on “death row.” Instead of being sentenced to death by execution, I was sentenced to death by incarceration or Life-Without-Parole (LWOP), the invisible death row. Does that mean I’m mean trilled to have been “spared” the death penalty? Quite the contrary. Had the judge ordered me executed, I probably would have been much better off. Let me explain.

Those given the death penalty get all sorts of legal resources thrown at them, while lifers are left to fend for themselves. The numbers tell it all. A whopping 73% of death penalty convictions are overturned, while only 7% of lifers’ convictions are. Both those who receive LWOP or the death penalty go through the same exact “justice” system prior to sentencing. The same system that has been found to result in thousands of wrongful convictions due to misconduct by police (torturing false confessions, concealing or destroying exonerating evidence, manipulating line-ups, witnesses, etc.), prosecutors (racist jury selections, withholding evidence favorable to defendants, knowingly using false testimony, making improper and prejudicial comments, etc.), and judges (improper jury instructions, refusing to rein in unprofessional prosecutors, refusing to suppress improperly or illegally obtained evidence, etc.); as well as lying witnesses, biased juries, junk science masquerading as forensic “proof” of guilt, incompetent, overwhelmed, or unscrupulous public defenders or defense lawyers, and more.

Bringing those facts to light is no insignificant task. For the indigent person in prison without a lawyer, it is a nearly insurmountable one. This is the positions most lifers find themselves in, and why it is highly likely that there’s an even higher percentage of innocent people serving LWOP than were sentenced to be executed. Activists the world over write to death row inmates offering emotional, financial, and legal support. Innocence projects, high-powered law firms, and others jockey to represent them in court. Laws are enacted across the country to ensure that those who receive the death penalty are provided heightened due process rights. Their cases are reviewed with a fine-toothed comb to supposedly ensure no innocent person is executed. Common sense therefore tells us that if lifers were given the same additional due process safeguards and resources, thousands more of them would have their convictions overturned as well. While some obviously would be reconvicted, others would be able to finally prove their innocence.

It’s sickeningly ironic that those the State claims are completely irredeemable are the only ones to receive added protections against a wrongful conviction. Those who a judge or jury found not so bad as to deserve execution are denied those safeguards. So, the more heinous your crime, the more likely you’ll get your conviction overturned. A death sentence literally improves your odds of getting a new trial by a factor of ten.

Here’s another reason why there are probably a higher percentage of wrongful convictions resulting in sentences of LWOP than the death penalty. Prosecutors use the threat of death to get people to voluntarily accept a LWOP sentence. When former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty, a prosecutor claimed that the loss of the death penalty denied him a valuable tool to scare people into pleading guilty in exchange for a LWOP sentence. He seemingly didn’t realize what many former death penalty prosecutors already have – “that the threat of death is used as a coercive tool to get guilty pleas for capital crimes, leading to false life sentence convictions.”

I was wrongly convicted for a gang-related double murder and, although found eligible to receive the death penalty, was sentenced to a mandatory minimum LWOP. A jury convicted me based on the perjured testimony of others. The appellate court claimed I was convicted under a “theory of accountability,” seemingly for the actions of my co-defendants – though the jury never explained its verdict. Ironically, a different judge found all of my co-defendants ineligible for the death penalty. It made no difference to my judge that this was my first felony conviction – while my co-defendants each have extensive criminal histories.

Serving a life-without-parole sentence, I am now one of thousands on Illinois’ invisible death row. Across America, we “lifers” now number over 100,000 (and growing) – nearly one in ten of whom are juveniles when they “allegedly” committed their crimes and who are now battling with state courts for new sentences under recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent that says juvenile are different and only rarely deserving of a LWOP sentence. Even opponents of the death penalty argue that LWOP is the perfect alternative to the death penalty. As if the end result were somehow different. The end result, however, is exactly the same – no freedom whatsoever, no second chances, and death in prison. Death may not come as quickly as a planned execution, but it’s still a death sentence all the same. They think that supporting LWOP sentences is not supporting a death sentence – that their hands are clean. It is a death sentence though – death by incarceration. They are still supporting state-sanctioned taking of a life.

But isn’t it ironic that the people the state claims are completely irredeemable are the only ones who receive the added legal protections against the wrongful conviction? And isn’t it ironic that the people a judge or jury find less dangerous are denied those legal safeguards? For that reason alone, myself, and many others feel that a LWOP sentence is worse than the death penalty. “Death by incarceration” is just as heinous as death by lethal injection, for a number of other reasons.

While an execution is over in minutes, “lifers” are denied adequate medical care and often die after years of unnecessary suffering in excruciating pain due to any number of untreated ailments: cancer, hepatitis, diabetes, liver disease, etc. They spend decades in maximum and super maximum-security prisons where daily life is miserable and conditions are often unconstitutionally horrendous. It’s no wonder why former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said, in his opinion, LWOP was a much worse sentence and felt comfortable signing off on abolishing the death penalty. Waiting to die by imprisonment means decades of disappointment as each appeal is arbitrarily shot down. It means you are forever told you aren’t worth rehabilitating. Trying to convince yourself daily that your life has value even while the rest of the world tells you that you’re worthless. You spend a lifetime wondering what your true potential really is and yearning for the chance to find out. This is especially unbearable for the wrongfully convicted.

A LWOP sentence means constant contemplation of a wasted life as you hear about your loved ones dying off one after another, a continual despair as to both your inability to aid or comfort those who remain, or accomplish anything significant with your remaining years. It’s a compounding of second upon second, minute upon minute, a quick death is often preferred. A few others are starting to recognize the truth about LWOP sentences and the like. Catholics, who have long been opponents of the death penalty and supporters of LWOP, are beginning to see the error of their ways.

On October 23, 2014, Pope Francis acknowledged, “A life sentence is a hidden death sentence.” Likewise, the other Death Penalty Project has had some limited success in convincing anti-death penalty groups to with stop pushing LWOP as the “perfect alternative,” or stop discriminating against those sentenced to death by incarceration. So, while Illinois and some other states may have abolished the death penalty and no longer have literal death rows, there are still thousands of us, many of us innocent, occupying death chambers on invisible or hidden death rows.

Joseph Dole K84446

Stateville Correctional Center

P.O. Box 112

Joliet, IL 60434