Sunday, 10 June 2007

Vengeance, not justice, at heart of death penalty resurrection

Go ahead and call us bleeding hearts. As Missouri officials stumble over themselves in almost ghoulish fashion to get the state's death penalty machine up and running again, our hearts bleed. Our eyes shed tears and our souls ache. Not for the truly vicious killers and rapists who might face the ultimate punishment.
In that regard, we're just as human as so many others who want to see an eye for an eye.
But that's vengeance, not justice.
And if we know one thing about the death penalty and how it's been applied in this country, it's that it is not just.

In the past three decades, more than 120 people have walked away from death rows in various states, cleared of the crimes that would have led to their deaths. It's only because of the hard work of groups such as the Innocence Project, and the dedication of certain law enforcement officials, defense attorneys and prosecutors, that some of those 120 people didn't die at the state's hand for crimes they didn't commit.

Worse yet, some people have been killed and only later, when it was too late, did evidence appear that put their guilt into question. One such case was Larry Griffin, a Missouri man put to death by the state in 1995. After Griffin's death, a police officer came forward to say that the primary informant in the case, a lifelong criminal, was lying.
That's why we're so opposed to the death penalty.
There's no turning back.

That's what's so disappointing about Gov. Matt Blunt's reaction to the decision last week of a federal appeals court to reinstate the death penalty in Missouri. We respect the fact that Blunt, and Attorney General Jay Nixon, and many other Missouri politicians, probably a majority of them, are in favor of the death penalty. It's the ultimate "tough on crime" position, and there are legitimate reasons to argue in its favor.

But Blunt chose the one argument in favor of the death penalty that we believe is its weakest defense.
"Capital punishment is a vital deterrent to the most serious of crimes," Blunt said in joining Nixon in practically cheering the court's ruling. How ironically sad that the one issue these two rivals agree on is the rush to kill. How equally unfortunate that Blunt believes the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. We believe the evidence fails to make that case:

- An analysis by the Death Penalty Information Center indicates that the average murder rates in states with the death penalty were much higher, at 5.3 per 100,000, in 2005, than in states without the death penalty, which averaged a rate of 2.8. While there are many demographic reasons why that might be the case, a New York Times study in 2000 took demographics into account, and in like states, the murder rates were still generally lower in non-death-penalty states.

- A 1995 study of police chiefs showed that the death penalty was the tool they ranked dead last as an effective tool to combat violent crime. Perhaps that's because the chiefs have seen the statistics from the FBI Uniform Crime Report that indicate that police officers are killed in much higher proportions in states with the death penalty.

We're sure the governor takes his role in implementing the death penalty very seriously. Ultimately, it's one of the most powerful, unique and human aspects of a governor's job. He and only he, in the privacy of his own thoughts, makes the ultimate decision on whether a criminal dies. We wish in those private moments, the governor — and all governors of death-penalty states — would come to the realization that we have, that the possibility of taking an innocent life should supersede the symbolic effort of repaying murder with more death.

That's all the death penalty is, really — a symbolic act — and that's why we wish Missouri would join the many states that have abolished its use.
It's a symbol of the state's vengeance. It's not a deterrent. And it's not justice.
So, yes, our hearts bleed as Missouri marches again toward implementing the death penalty.
We're guilty.
But can we say that with conviction about every man or woman on Missouri's death row?

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