ALBANY, N.Y. -- When the last court says no and the clock ticks down toward an execution, a prisoner's only chance is a plea for mercy.
Such pleas arrive each year before governors, pardons boards, and the president, many with tales of woe told through children's letters, baptismal certificates, photos, and poetry. And each year, nearly all are rejected and disappear into state and federal files.
Now two researchers at the State University of New York's Albany campus have created a national death penalty archive and begun compiling such pleas in the hope they will yield lessons about the workings, and failings, of the criminal justice system.
''When you read those petitions, some of them cry out that something very bad occurred," said James Acker, a criminal justice professor who started the project with Charles Lanier.
Last month, the first boxes carrying 137 clemency pleas arrived at the National Death Penalty Archives from a private donor. The archive will be open to advocates, lawyers, journalists, and others.
Lawyers and inmates could study the successful petitions when they prepare their own pleas for mercy, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Bill Bowers of the Capital Jury Project, a national research effort into how juries make decisions, called the files ''a gold mine of things that wouldn't show up in legal papers."
Only 15 of the 137 petitions in the archives resulted in clemency, a thrown-out death sentence, or a new trial. More than 1,000 people have been executed in the United States since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976. Sixty-three prisoners have been spared, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That does not count the 167 death sentences Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted in 2003, citing flaws in the system.
Pleas for mercy often cite abuse and mental illness because prisoners often have nothing else to offer, and those making clemency decisions usually have few guidelines to go on but their conscience, according to the archive's founders.
Take the case of William Neal Moore of Georgia. In 1974, a friend had told Moore, then a depressed 23-year-old soldier, that Fredger Stapleton, 77, kept $20,000 in his home, according to testimony. Moore got drunk and entered Stapleton's home, and Stapleton fired. Moore shot back, killing Stapleton. Stapleton's relatives were among those who pleaded for Moore's life.
''Billy was just a stranger in the wrong place at the wrong time," a relative wrote. ''Now we feel like we know him, and . . . he'd be welcome in our homes." The Board of Pardons and Paroles commuted his sentence to life in prison, saying it was ''impressed" that Stapleton's relatives asked for clemency.