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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Was an Innocent Person Executed

July 14, 2005
Convicted, Executed, Not Guilty

If Larry Griffin were being tried today for the murder of Quintin Moss, he
would almost certainly be acquitted. The evidence is overwhelming that he did
not kill Mr. Moss.
But Mr. Griffin is not being tried today. He has already been executed for
the murder.
While significant, this development is not that much of a surprise to those
who understand that human beings are fallible and that much of the criminal
justice system in the United States is a crapshoot. Whether it is this case or
some other, it is inevitable that we will learn of someone who has been
executed for a crime that he or she did not commit.
Judges and juries are no less prone to mistakes than politicians, reporters,
doctors, engineers or center fielders. Which is why the death penalty should
be abolished.
Larry Griffin's case is probably not the best one for advancing this
argument, but it's the case at hand. He was not a solid citizen. While it seems
clear that he did not commit the crime for which he was executed - the killing of
Mr. Moss - he did plead guilty to killing someone else.
Mr. Griffin's character, or lack of same, does not make the principle at
stake any less valid. This was recognized by Jennifer Joyce, the circuit
attorney in St. Louis, where Mr. Moss was murdered way back in 1980. Ms. Joyce has
taken the extraordinary step of officially reopening a murder investigation
after the defendant was executed.
Quintin Moss was 19 years old and a locally well-known drug dealer when he
was shot 13 times in a drive-by attack on a notorious block in St. Louis known
as "The Stroll." A bystander, Wallace Conners, was also shot but not
seriously wounded.
Mr. Conners, who knew Larry Griffin, saw the men who drove up and opened
fire. He said Mr. Griffin was not one of the men. But he was never called,
either by the prosecution or the defense, to testify at Mr. Griffin's trial.
The key testimony was given by Robert Fitzgerald, a professional criminal who
said he had witnessed the murder and identified Mr. Griffin as one of the
shooters. Mr. Fitzgerald was in the federal witness protection program at the
time. He had a number of felony charges pending and was an admitted user of
heroin and speed.
A Missouri Supreme Court justice said of Mr. Fitzgerald: "The only eyewitness
to the murder had a seriously flawed background, and his ability to observe
and identify the gunman was also subject to question."
There was no physical evidence against Mr. Griffin, and no one else at the
trial placed him at the scene of the attack. But he was convicted nevertheless,
and executed by lethal injection on June 21, 1995.
Mr. Fitzgerald was formally released from custody on the day Mr. Griffin was
One of the reasons we have not had a definitive example of the execution of
an innocent person is that official investigations cease once the death
penalty has been carried out.
In this case, an extremely unusual private investigation was conducted after
Mr. Griffin's death. It was sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and
Educational Fund and led by Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan
Law School. That investigation has pretty much demolished Mr. Fitzgerald's
account of what occurred and prompted Ms. Joyce to reopen the case.
Mr. Conners, the wounded bystander, says flatly that Mr. Fitzgerald, who died
last year, was not at the scene when the attack took place. And a St. Louis
police officer who supported Mr. Fitzgerald's account at the trial now says
that Mr. Fitzgerald told him, "I didn't see nothing."
The officer says he can't explain why he supported Mr. Fitzgerald's false
testimony at the trial.
Professor Gross, who has received extensive pro bono help from prominent law
firms, has given prosecutors the names of three men he believes committed the
murder, and the evidence that points to their guilt.
Ms. Joyce, who is reopening the case, was not in the circuit attorney's
office when Mr. Griffin was prosecuted. She told me in a telephone conversation
yesterday, "I just want to see the truth."
The investigation will be thorough, she said, adding, "I wanted to take an
independent look at it, and if mistakes were made, do what I can to rectify
them, recognizing that there may not be much I could do."

* _Copyright 2005_
( _The New York Times Company_ (