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Shawn Vestal: ‘I thought, this is my day to die’

Randal Padgett was acquitted of his capital sentence after a retrial in 1997. (EDWIN TSE)
Randal Padgett was acquitted of his capital sentence after a retrial in 1997. (EDWIN TSE)

When Sabrina Butler-Smith was sentenced to death by lethal injection, she was given a date: July 2, 1990.

Her death date.

She had been convicted of murdering her 9-month-old son. She was 17 when he died and 18 when she was convicted, and when she entered the Mississippi prison where she would await her sentence, a guard told her: “You will die here.”

On the phone, her 5-year-old son asked her: “Are they going to kill you with a needle?” She spent her days in a 6-by-9-foot cell “no bigger than your bathroom” but felt glad to be isolated from the other prisoners, because they wanted to kill her, too, she said.

When July 2, 1990, arrived, “I thought, this is my day to die,” she said.

What she didn’t know was that her death date had been delayed as the courts exhausted appeal options. Her lawyers hadn’t told her that, she said. That was just one small example of the many ways our system of justice failed Butler-Smith.

In 1995, she was exonerated after evidence showed that bruises on her son’s body had come from her attempts to resuscitate him and a medical examiner changed his findings about the cause of death.

One thousand, two hundred and sixty-four days after her death date – more than five years in prison and 33 months on death row – she walked free.

She has since devoted her efforts to trying to end the death penalty in America, writing a book and serving as a board member for Witness to Innocence. That group, a nonprofit that helps people who have been freed from death row, is in the midst of a statewide tour this week, meant to highlight the problems with the death penalty.

As part of the tour, Butler-Smith and another death-row exoneree, Randal Padgett, spoke to an audience at Gonzaga University on Wednesday night – including many young students who are the same age that Butler-Smith was as she sat on death row.

“I will talk until I’m blue in the face, until I can’t do it anymore, because this is wrong,” said Butler-Smith, 47. “People, this is wrong.”

Her story is far from unique. Since 1973, 159 Americans have been exonerated following death-penalty convictions. Three of those came in the past year. Stefanie Anderson, communications director for Witness to Innocence, noted the most common reasons for exonerations: eyewitness errors, bad science, snitch testimony and inept lawyering.

We have applied death sentences with incredible unevenness in this country. A tiny percentage of those defendants who might qualify for execution actually face the penalty – based not on merit or justice by on factors such as geography, prosecutorial discretion, race and other factors.

Anderson said the risk of putting an innocent person to death is too great, and that it’s applied in racially disproportionate ways. She cited a University of Washington study that showed jurors in this state were three times more likely to recommend the death penalty for a black defendant than a white one. African-Americans represent 35 percent of all Americans put to death by the courts, about triple the proportion of the black population at large. Of the eight people on death row in Washington – there despite a current moratorium on the death penalty – four are black.

“This is a national problem, and it’s a Washington state problem,” she said.

Padgett is a gravelly-voiced 67-year-old Alabaman who spent five years on death row for the murder and rape of his estranged wife. Before that, his life had followed a trajectory of American education and success: no trouble with the law, college graduate, a wife and two kids, a good job.

He had faith in the courts and our system of justice. Even as he was arrested and charged with the crime, he felt confident that he would be found innocent.

“I tell my story to try and reach some people who might be as naive as I was before this terrible thing happened to me,” he said.

His conviction in 1992 was built on faulty DNA evidence. Furthermore, prosecutors obtained a DNA test that would have cleared Padgett shortly before trial – but kept it to themselves, a large part of the basis for his eventual exoneration. He was acquitted after a retrial in 1997.

“That day it was like I came back to Planet Earth,” he said. “It was jubilation.”

Both Padgett and Butler-Smith have struggled to find work, and both lived for years in the same communities where their cases were so well-known.

At first, Padgett said, he even had a hard time negotiating a physically spacious world, after living in such confinement; he misjudged distances while driving, and once crashed into a building while parking.

Padgett choked up more than once in recounting his experiences – but he also retained a grim sense of humor.

He talked about running into his local prosecutor after his exoneration at a concert in their small Alabama town. The prosecutor was running for re-election, and offered Padgett a card.

“I’ll be voting for your opponent,” Padgett said.

The prosecutor then pointed out that his card had a football schedule on it, so it might be of some use in that way.

“Well,” Padgett said, “you probably got the numbers wrong.”


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