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Death by the Numbers

By Margo Pierce · April 5th, 2006 · All The News That Fits
If the air bags in one out of 10 cars were defective, a recall of vehicles would be expected, even demanded. This is an example of intolerance toward unnecessary loss of human life cited by Gary Beeman, a former Death Row inmate who speaks about his experience in an attempt to draw attention to the injustice of capital punishment.

"There's 123 exonerations since 1976 and there have been 1,000 executions," Beeman says. "If one out of 10 airplanes had a problem, they would stop it. Why not this? Because it's a power thing. The people on Death Row don't have the power to get people to look at it. Blacks and poor people are dispensable."

Beeman, who is white, was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death in Ohio in 1976. He maintained his innocence and named the actual murderer, Claire Liuzzo, an escaped prisoner who testified against Beeman during his first trial. An appeals court granted Beeman a new trial in 1978. The retrial included five witnesses who testified they'd heard Liuzzo confess to the murder. Beeman was acquitted in 1979.

"There are countless people over the years whose cases haven't gone that way," Beeman says. "I believe there are innocent people on Death Row. Although we don't execute people outright for religious beliefs, we execute them because their faces are brown or a different color or because they don't have money or they don't have power.

Show me one powerful person on Death Row."

Grateful for his freedom, Beeman wants to give something back. He wants to make people aware of what capital punishment is about.

"When looking at capital punishment, innocence is irrelevant to the whole process," he says. "The whole system is about power. It's not about justice."

Witness to Innocence (www.witnesstoinnocence.org) is an organization that "challenges the American public to grapple with the problem of a fatally flawed criminal justice system that sends innocent people to Death Row." The group has organized the "2006 Ohio Tour" for mid-April to bring this awareness to the Buckeye State.

"There've been 20 executions (in Ohio), and for every five people that have been executed there has been a person exonerated. That's a one-to-four ratio," says Kurt Rosenburg, director of Witness to Innocence. "In my mind, it's not a great ratio. The national ratio is one person exonerated for every eight executions. It's clear there are still problems with Ohio's death penalty system."

Beeman, who now resides in New York, will be back in Ohio next week to tell his story. In 2003 he began his involvement with death penalty prohibition when he became one of several exonerated convicts from across the country invited to participate in an Illinois march from Statesville Prison, where executions take place, to downtown Chicago. The march culminated in a request to outgoing Gov. George Ryan to commute the sentences of inmates on Death Row. This effort, combined with others, resulted in the commutation of 157 death sentences.

"Back in the '70s I felt like I needed to turn around and give back for my freedom," Beeman says. "But I never did. Then I thought, 'Maybe here's an opportunity where I can do this.' I'm grateful to be alive and free today. I know how I felt. I had tremendous help, and I was very grateful for that. I would like to be a part of that now that I'm on this side of the bars."

Beeman believes the poor, minorities and the other "disposable people" who populate Death Row need advocates.

"(I want) to have people take a serious look at the death penalty, what it's about, what's happening. Who are actually the ones who are being penalized? Stop executions, have a moratorium temporarily just to take a look at it."

Beeman says it's important for everyone.

"It can happen to anybody," he says. "Anybody can fall through the cracks."

Beeman speaks at 9 a.m. Tuesday at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, at 3 p.m. at the UC School of Law and at 7 p.m. at Xavier University. For more information, call 513-579-8547.

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