BY ADAM NICHOLS DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Sunday, June 10th 2007, 4:00 AM
Fears that innocent people could be executed in America's prisons are increasingly convincing longtime supporters of the death penalty to change their mind, according to a new poll.
After seeing hundreds of prisoners cleared of crimes, people are no longer confident that only the guilty are being killed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center Report.
More than 60% of former capital punishment backers now believe innocent people have been sentenced to death.
"That is absolutely the case," said Jeffrey Deskovic, 34, freed from prison last year after serving 17 years for the murder and rape of a school friend in Peekskill.
The real killer was sentenced last month.
"I was 16 when this happened. If I had been 18, I am certain I would have been sentenced to death. I wouldn't be here today."
The report, which questioned 1,000 adults, found nearly 40% were opposed to the death sentence.
Nearly 70% of African-Americans were against it, and nearly 50% of women.
Exonerations of convicted criminals were the main reason for opposition. Since 1973, more than 120 people have been freed from Death Row.
The New York-based Project Innocence, which used DNA evidence to prove Deskovic's innocence, has secured the freedom of 203 wrongly convicted prisoners since 1989.
"These findings show the public's appreciation of the lessons to be learned from wrongful convictions, and from the ever-present possibility of human error," said Stephen Saloom, the project's policy director.
"Exonerations have established irrefutably that the system does get it wrong sometimes. Whatever your position, you cannot ignore the fact that there have been 203 DNA exonerations, and counting.
"It seems extremely possible that there has been at least one innocent person who has been executed, and it would not take an extraordinary leap to imagine there have been many more."
Only 39% of those questioned expressed confidence that the justice system sentences only the guilty to death, according to the poll.
Deskovic said, "I had to give up 17 years of my life. I can't get the time back, but I did get my freedom.
"If I'd got the death sentence, nobody could have given me my life back."