There is an excellent article in the New York Times about a Maryland man named Kirk Bloodsworth, who is an advocate for ending capital punishment in the state of Maryland. Bloodsworth has something of a personal stake in the fight, because his case shows just how unfair the concept of capital punishment is at its core.
Bloodsworth was a waterman and former Marine with no criminal record, when he was accused of one of the worst murders in state history. A jury deliberated for two and a half hours before convicting him and sentencing him to death. I know a lot of pro-death penalty advocates decry the seemingly never-ending appeals, but in this case, it worked out well. After nine years on death row, He was exonerated by DNA evidence.
Ironically, the DNA evidence actually pointed to the actual killer, who was subsequently convicted and given a life sentence. Not a death sentence, but a life sentence. If that doesn't point to the capricious nature of our approach to "justice," what does?
Thankfully, use of the death penalty is once again going in the right direction. A total of 17 states no longer execute criminals, and the number of executions dropped to 43 last year, which is less than half the 98 executions committed in 1999. And yes, I used the word "committed." When the state executes someone, it's a premeditated killing. And increasingly, we have been discovering that our system is horribly flawed, and that many of the people we've been killing, or planning to kill, couldn't have committed the crimes we're using as a rationale for killing them.
What kind of country do we want to be? When do we go beyond the collective paranoia that drives us to imagine killers escaping to murder again and again? And even if such a thing does happen occasionally, how does that justify killing someone who is actually innocent of the charges? As screwed up as our system obviously is, how can we possibly know for sure that anyone is actually guilty? Increasingly, our adversarial system establishes guilt or innocence based less on actual evidence, and more on how well one side presents their case.
The urgency of protecting capital punishment as a concept simply cannot be allowed to trump protection of the concept of innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet, that often seems to be the case. Too often, politicians and prosecutors seem to commit an execution to score political points, rather than to serve any real sense of "justice."
Take the case of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, who was executed on September 21, 2011. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles decided to go ahead with the execution, regardless of the actual circumstances. Davis had been convicted of killing a police officer, through a trial that featured no physical evidence. There was no murder weapon, and no DNA evidence. The only "evidence" against him was the trial testimony of nine alleged "eyewitnesses," seven of whom recanted later. Specifically, the jury said that it had relied on two witnesses who said Davis confessed to the shooting, both of whom later admitted they had lied. Several jurors are on record saying that, if they knew then what they know now, they never would have convicted him.
In 2007, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a statement, promising they would "not allow an execution to proceed in this state unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused." Yeah. Right.
A year before that, on September 23, 2010, the state of Virginia executed a 41 year old woman who was often described as “evil.” Since she was the first woman executed in the state since 1912, she must have been really, exceptionally “evil,” huh? Well, to be honest, no one really knows.
The woman the state killed was 41 year old Teresa Lewis, who barely passed her IQ test. That may seem flip, but if her IQ had tested two points lower, it would have been illegal for the state to kill her. Yet, the judge who presided over her trial referred to this woman, with an IQ of 72, as a "criminal mastermind," which should call into doubt his IQ. And how accurate are these tests, anyway, that they should determine whether a person lives or dies? If they had given her another test, isn't it possible she might have gotten one more question wrong and been disqualified from execution?
I always thought death penalty supporters hated “technicalities.”
But that's not the strangest part. No, the strangest part of this is that she actually pled guilty to the crime, which usually brings a lighter sentence. Oh, yeah; and this "evil" woman didn't actually even kill anyone. That's not to say she was completely innocent, but the state of Virginia killed her, even though she didn't actually kill anyone.
She needed money, so she hired two men to kill her husband and her son, so she could collect on a life insurance policy. The men she hired were 19 and 21 years old and not much brighter than she, and she apparently thought the insurance company would just pay her the money without an investigation. This is a "mastermind"?
Now, the two men she hired had three choices. They could have laughed at her and blown her off. They could have turned her in to the police, and thus saved a number of lives. They chose to kill her husband and son for money. Yet these killers -- two men who actually killed someone -- received a sentence of life in prison each. There is no excuse for what she did, or what they did. But they executed a woman who asked two men to carry out a murder, while keeping the two men who actually committed the murder alive in prison. Given that the men could have said no, and even turned her in, how is this "justice," exactly?
I have to admit that I have never understood the point of the death penalty, but I certainly don’t understand the concept in this day and age. Yes, when something terrible happens to someone you love, our instincts are often to want to rip someone's heart out. But as a society, we're supposed to rise above that.
The death penalty simply isn't just. There are a number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the moral rightness or wrongness of putting nasty killers to death. If it was possible to identify the nastiest killers in our society beyond a shadow of a doubt and executing them was the only way to separate them from the populace, it might sense to kill them before they kill others. But technology exists that allows us to build prisons that are virtually inescapable. We have these people in custody, and they're never going to kill anyone ever again. What’s the point of killing them?
Unfortunately, our justice system isn’t that great. Our criminal justice system, while it's better than many, really doesn't produce great results in all cases. We have too many criminal laws on the books, not enough police on the streets, and our legal system tends to focus on the suspect and how to make him or her look guilty, rather than actually finding the truth and punishing the actual lawbreaker.
It is far too common for the system to convict an innocent man, for us to be discussing sentences that cannot be reversed. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973 at least 142 people who were convicted by judge and jury for heinous crimes and sentenced to death were later exonerated and released? Imagine if their sentence had been carried out; that would be 142 innocent lives taken, that we know of. How many more have we executed before we could find out they were wrongly convicted?
How can we execute anyone in good conscience when we know that our system is so flawed that at least 142 innocent people were sentenced to death for a crime they didn't actually commit?
Check out this article from USA Today. Their investigative journalists documented at least 201 cases that had been tainted by prosecutorial misconduct by the Department of Justice. At least 47 of those cases resulted in the exoneration and release of the defendant. In one armed robbery case, prosecutors were blocked from seeking the death penalty because they withheld evidence.
How can we put anyone to death in a system that we KNOW is so incredibly flawed? If an error is discovered later, even a life sentence can be altered or reversed, to a certain extent. But if we kill them, such a reversal is impossible, obviously.
And it's not like the death penalty is efficient. We spend far more money on appeals for death row inmates than we would spend housing them in maximum security prisons for the rest of their lives. If we have the capability to put them in jail and hold them for the 8-15 years it takes to exhaust all of their appeals, surely we can them longer?
What exactly do we as a society gain from executing prisoners, anyway?
The death penalty is not about justice, because there is none. It’s not about deterrence; given our sky high murder rate, there is no evidence that anyone is deterred from anything.
The death penalty is about revenge and blood lust, and neither of those is rational. Even if individuals can't be rational on such matters, shouldn't the justice system at least try to instill some rationality? It's not rational for a society to force its politicians to embrace capital punishment, or risk their jobs by being called “soft on crime.” One thing has nothing to do with the other. The states that execute the most criminals actually also have the worst violent crime rates, while states that don't put people to death tend to have much lower violent crime rates.
The death penalty goes against our principles as a society, and it makes us look bad on the world stage. Right wingers claim not to care what other countries think about us, but we rational folks really should.
We’re actually one of the few civilized “free” countries that still practices this barbarism. To date, 137 countries have outright banned the use of the death penalty. Fully 88% of the criminals executed worldwide in 2007 came from five countries; China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Isn't that great company? Do we really want the "land of the free and the home of the brave" to be lumped in with them?
Why are we , as a nation, not ashamed that part of our record? Isn't it past time we stopped executing people?