Thursday, 1 November 2007

The Death Penalty: What is an Acceptable Error Percentage?

Byron Williams
Wed Oct 31, 2:58 PM ET

Though the Georgia Supreme court has agreed to finally hear his appeal, Troy Davis sits on death row for the murder of Officer Mark McPhail in Savannah GA, despite the fact that most of the witnesses have since recanted, many alleging they were pressured or coerced by police.

There was no physical evidence against him and the weapon used in the crime was never found. The case against Davis consisted entirely of witness testimony, which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial.

As Davis fights for his life, the American Bar Association recently released a report that evaluated the fairness and accuracy of capital punishment of eight states, including Georgia. The report is based on a simple premise that if ours is a society that is going to have a death penalty there can be no margin for error.

The ABA findings found serious problems in every state they evaluated, fueling calls for a moratorium on the death penalty.

According to the report, states generally are failing to require the preservation of physical and/or biological evidence through the entire legal process. DNA testing statutes often are drafted too narrowly, with strict filing deadlines and onerous procedural hurdles.

States are not requiring that crime laboratories and medical examiner offices be accredited. Most states have had at least one serious incident of crime lab mistakes or fraud.

Every state evaluated continues to struggle with racial disparities in its capital system. And none seem to have addressed the impact that mental illness as well as mental retardation can have on capital cases.

Moreover, with some states utilizing judicial elections, there can be an erosion of judicial independence as judges are increasingly selected based on their political positions, especially on capital punishment, than justice and fairness.

These findings and others within the report strongly indicate the only consistency is the inconsistencies in the manner in which capital punishment is administered. As a result, if you are poor, a racial minority, or suffering from mental health or mental retardation, you have a much better chance of receiving the death penalty.

The ABA report is hardly groundbreaking. It does, however, bring light to the inequity of the policy.

Suppose all the flaws cited in the ABA report were addressed, is it possible to have a perfect capital punishment policy? On matters of life and death, at what point do the errors become unacceptable?

Why is it that a country that consistently demonstrates distrust for government with benign matters can allow for such bureaucratic malfeasance on the critical issue of life?

Are the poor, racial minorities, or those suffering from mental health or mental retardation expendable political pawns? The obvious answer is yes. Ambitious politicians, running on tough on crime policies, can take the most egregious scenarios and make them emblematic of the whole. The system is flawed; Illinois proved that in 2000 when it exonerated 13 men on death row who had been wrongly convicted.

I have no idea if Troy Davis is innocent. I do know that his life cannot be in jeopardy based on a system that has nothing more than inconsistent witness testimony on which to convict him.

Given that it is a system that cannot be 100 percent accurate, what then is an acceptable percentage of accuracy? Anything above zero is a form of social triage. Our collective primordial thirst for revenge blinds us to the insanity of the policy.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, America has executed roughly 1,100 individuals comprised mostly of those mentioned in the ABA study. One can only wonder if some were wrongly convicted.

While I applaud the work of the ABA to bring these issues of injustice to light, calling for a moratorium on the death penalty is just the beginning. The goal must be for America to join the ranks of countries like Honduras, Haiti, and Senegal by abolishing the death penalty, thereby leaving the fraternity headed by North Korea, China, and Rwanda.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail or leave a message at 510-208-6417

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