Jack Payden-Travers, director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, enters Court Square Theater Sunday to participate in a viewing of the movie "A Race to Execution" and the following discussion panel on the issue of the death sentence.mPhoto by Evan Dyson
HARRISONBURG — For more than 16 years, Harold Wilson sat on Pennsylvania’s death row, awaiting execution for a crime he says he didn’t commit.
Two years ago, DNA evidence exonerated Wilson, a father of two, of a 1988 triple-ax homicide in South Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, he said, determined his jury was chosen using racially discriminatory practices.
"I suffered a great wrong, and it’s not going to be over," Wilson said to a crowd of 70 people at Harrisonburg’s Court Square Theater on Sunday.
"But, I get my healing through speaking … whether it’s in Virginia, Pennsylvania, or in Iraq, it can’t continue to happen."
Wilson is one of 203 people in the United States, including 10 in Virginia, to have been given a death sentence and then been cleared by DNA evidence, according to The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic in New York.
Wilson said his case exposes problems in the judicial system and that further investigation needs to go into who is executed.
A moratorium on the death penalty would have far-reaching implications in Virginia — a state with the highest per capita rate of executions in the nation, according to Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
On Wednesday, the state is scheduled to execute Christopher Scott Emmett, at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, for the April 2001 slaying of John Langley.
Emmett will be the 99th person executed in Virginia since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that struck down capital punishment, according to Amnesty International USA.
"It’s crucial to educate society and make better decisions on who lives and dies in Virginia," Wilson said.
A Broken System
Wilson spoke at the theater after the documentary "A Race to Execution" was shown, a film that followed the fates of two men on death row.
Wilson was invited to the Harrisonburg event, along with other panelists, as part of his nationwide campaign to halt the death penalty.
The film, which explored the issue of race bias in jury selection, was of great significance to the story Wilson would tell.
In 1999, a trial court overturned Wilson’s death sentence when it was determined that his defense counsel had failed to investigate properly, according to a press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. that provides information on the death penalty.
After a later appeal, Wilson was granted a new trial after it was found that former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon was using racially discriminatory practices in Wilson’s jury selection, according to the DPIC.
On Nov. 15, 2005, he was acquitted of all charges based on DNA evidence, he said.
Wilson said that although he cherishes his freedom, he still carries the stain of conviction.
More than 17 years after being convicted and freed, he said he still has a criminal record, making it impossible for him to obtain employment, affordable housing or medical insurance.
Healing Or Hurting
Controversy continues to swirl around the death penalty in Virginia.
But for sisters Linell Smith of Harrisonburg and Megan Smith of Hillsborough, N.C., the death penalty provides no comfort.
On Sept. 6, 2001, Terry and Lucy Smith, Linell and Megan’s father and stepmother, were tortured and murdered by Lucy’s adopted teenage son, Michael, and his friends in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania.
The couple were bound to chairs with duct tape, beaten with a hammer and suffocated, the girls said at the event.
Landon May, one of Michael’s friends, is now on death row, and the Smith sisters don’t want to see him executed, they said.
The sisters said seeing May die won’t bring them comfort, and it is something they’ve never asked for.
Megan Smith said her belief was strengthened when she met May’s family.
"We formed this strange bond in having to mourn for crimes we didn’t commit," Smith said.
She said she remembered the sound of wailing that rang out when May’s death sentence was announced in court.
"It is a sound I’ll carry for the rest of my life," Smith said. "It is not a sound that gave me healing."
Contact Hannah Northey at 574-6274 or firstname.lastname@example.org