Sunday, 5 August 2007

Anne Hart: Time to kill the death penalty

By Anne Hart

Created 2007-08-04 23:30

People who support the death penalty often sound so moral.

After all, they're anti-crime. What could be more righteous?

Whereas those of us who oppose the death penalty typically come across as soft on crime, simply because we push for life in prison without the possibility of parole rather than state-sanctioned killing.

Whenever I argue with a defender of capital punishment, I find myself being pulled in by their arguments.

Especially when they ask me, as they usually do, "What would you do?"

"What if someone killed your loved one? Wouldn't you want the government to pursue the ultimate punishment allowed by law?"

That one gets to me. Almost. Until my debaters start insisting that God sanctions such eye-for-an-eye killing. They often go on to quote Genesis: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed."

Then I snap back to my senses: God sanctions killing? Something about that assertion - mainly the pro-killing part - doesn't ring true.

Yet, many among the religious right - people who strongly oppose abortion on the basis that killing is wrong - support the death penalty.

What better time than Aug. 6, the anniversary of the first U.S. electric chair execution, to reconsider that stance?

William Kemmler was the first person executed in the electric chair. He was killed Aug. 6, 1890 at New York's Auburn Prison under the state's new execution law replacing hanging with electrocution.

Kemmler was convicted of a heinous crime that certainly deserved a severe sentence. He murdered his girlfriend with a hatchet.

He ended up being electrocuted twice because the first shot of voltage didn't work. The sight and smell of Kemmler's death caused some witnesses to faint and later call the electrocution "far worse than hanging,'' according to newspaper accounts.

"They all seemed to act as though they felt that they had taken part in a scene that would be told to the world as a public shame, as legal crime," The New York Times reported.

Of course, lethal injections have now replaced the electric chair as the common way to execute in the United States.

But on this anniversary - which also falls on the same date as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 - consider abandoning support of the death penalty.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to back capital punishment, crime deterrence being the most appealing.

But one reason to oppose it is reason enough to call for an end to the death penalty once and for all: the risk of exacting an irreversible penalty on innocent people.

Over the past 35 years, 124 death row inmates have been released following acquittal at retrial, dropped charges or a pardon based on new evidence of innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit specializing in research on capital punishment in the United States.

DNA testing has freed 205 people in the United States, including 15 on death row.
Governments can't provide certainty that the innocent will not be put to death.
No doubt I'd be disqualified from a jury in a capital case because of my concerns about the fairness of the process and the risk of executing the wrongly accused.
I'm not alone.

Public opinion in support of capital punishment has fallen.

The most recent Gallup Poll in May 2006 showed 65 percent supported the death penalty. But the same poll showed the number in support dropped to 47 percent when the option of life without the possibility of parole was included.

Support for executions lessened partly because of cases in which DNA evidence helped exonerate inmates who had been convicted and sentenced to death.

Thirteen of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia currently do not have the death penalty.

That's a start. But more need to follow.

Because the death penalty is more than risky. It also exacts a financial and emotional toll.

Victims' family members have to endure drawn-out court proceedings, sometimes reliving the crime through reiterated testimony every few years as part of the standard appeals in capital cases.

Death penalty cases invariable cost more than it does to impose life imprisonment.
Chances are the case of Brian Nichols - charged with the Atlanta March 2005 shooting deaths of a judge, court reporter, sheriff's sergeant and federal agent - would be finished by now.

Instead, the cost of defending Nichols is already past $1.8 million and the trial is still months away, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Certainly, some of you will always support the death penalty.

That's your choice.

But when we have the option of life without the possibility of parole, can we really say it's more ethical to support death?

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