New evidence emerges daily verifying what most of us have long suspected: Innocent persons have been put to death in this country for crimes they didn’t commit. We probably will never know how many of the nearly 1,000 executed since 1976 when capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court were not actually guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. But just one would be excessive.
Does this mean that the penalty should be abolished entirely? More and more Americans seem to think so, according to recent polls that show support for the supreme punishment has declined from three-fourths to two-thirds in the wake of increasing doubts about mistakes. That number drops to close to 50 percent when the alternative of life in prison without parole is suggested.
There is no arguing that in any number of death-penalty cases, juries, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys have shown a fallibility that is frightening in its implications. Juries are easily manipulated by slick prosecutors looking for new scalps; many judges on the local level, where most of the murder cases are tried, reveal an amazing ignorance about reasonable doubt and other safeguards; and defense attorneys too often give capital cases for which they frequently are paid very little by indigent clients or stingy courts a mere swipe of jurisprudence. Circumstantial evidence frequently rules the day, and even when there are eyewitnesses, their identifications are sketchy and suspect. Recanting testimony has become normal.
The time between sentencing and execution is often beyond ludicrous. The average death-row stay is something like 18 years. Stanley “Tookie” Williams, founder of the notorious Los Angeles Crips, has been awaiting execution in California for more than 24 years, convicted of murders in two robberies. In that time, he has written children’s books, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has been a persuasive voice against the gang violence he helped start. He is nearing the end of his time unless Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger steps in, as a number of celebrities have pleaded. Should we tell him that he has done well and then kill him?
But then, it is fair to ask, what should be done to those who have committed sickeningly heinous acts and about which there is absolutely no doubt of their guilt, including confessions that show no evidence of being coerced? What about the BTK (Bind, Torture and Kill) creature who worked a deal to save his miserable hide or any number of misanthropic sociopaths who have managed to wangle a life behind bars at taxpayer expense? Should there be a special category for them?
There are no easy answers. Capital punishment in many ways is as barbaric as the crime committed and utterly contrary to the claims of civility by the society that imposes it. Yet some form of it seems absolutely necessary to maintaining law and order. The very threat of death obviously deters some and forces others to admit to their crimes. Police and prosecutors have solved any number of outstanding mysteries by using the extreme penalty as a bargaining chip.
These factors alone are enough to support its continuation. Only when one adds the need to eradicate society’s most noxious weeds for the protection of the common good is capital punishment justifiable. This should be coupled with a set of inviolate and uniformly mandated standards for safeguarding the innocent. Any DNA at a crime scene should be instantly tested without consideration of cost. Police interrogations and witness identifications should be rigorously supervised. Lab work should be reviewed at least once. Videos should be employed from the moment of arrest.
In too many cases, the system’s reluctance to reopen a case translates to an unwillingness to admit a mistake.
Some states seem not to feel any remorse in the possibility of putting to death an innocent person. But even in these places there seems to be a growing recognition that government is also capable of committing a crime.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)