Sunday, 30 December 2007

Death watch

Dec. 30


Death watch

With its flaws becoming more and more apparent, no wonder the death
penalty is losing favor among many Americans.

It is the one punishment imposed by the legal system that once carried out
cannot be corrected with a turn of the key or an order from the
courthouse. When an execution has been conducted, the condemned person has
no more avenues of appeal.

A penalty like that must be flawless then, right? But consider: The use of
DNA evidence, a fairly recently development, has shown some people in
prison to be innocent. Some death row inmates have been exonerated. Most
such inmates of course are guilty of terrible crimes, but given that
wrongful convictions have occurred, it's not too much of a jump to
speculate that innocent people have been executed in this country.

Cases in North Carolina and other states -- where the constitutionality of
lethal injection as a method of killing someone convicted of a capital
crime has been challenged -- presumably will be settled by a Supreme Court
ruling on lethal injection protocols this summer. But the main focus of a
New York Times report carried in Wednesday's N&O was a shift in public
opinion on the death penalty.

Once it was an issue shamelessly exploited by politicians. A candidate for
statewide or national office who dared to announce firm opposition to the
death penalty could expect to see himself or herself portrayed in
opponents' commercials as someone ready to fling open the jailhouse doors,
a coddler of criminals with no sympathy for victims. There may be some of
that still, but it's clear that full-throated support for the death
penalty also might alienate a goodly number of voters who aren't quite so
sure that it's a really great idea for the state to kill people.

New Jersey, which had not executed anyone in over 40 years, recently
abolished its death penalty after a commission determined that the
punishment was not worth trying to retain. A couple of other states are
pondering similar action. Most of the remaining states with capital
punishment statutes have yet to reach that point, although there is a
reluctance on several counts about the death penalty. There even seems to
be a touch of hesitation now in Texas, where the legal system has been
pushed to accelerate the process from conviction to the death chamber and
where by far the most U.S. executions take place.

The questions and hesitations aren't just based on objections to the death
penalty on moral grounds, or on the premise that mistakes are made every
day in the judicial system but cannot afford to be made with the death
penalty. In addition to those concerns, some in the legal system believe
the long appeals process and the uncertain outcome of that process, often
with retrials and extensive publicity, cause the families of victims too
much pain. And the expense to the public typically is far greater than the
expense of locking someone up for life without parole.

If public support for the death penalty is waning, good. When the penalty
was in full-speed-ahead mode, the courts used to spend weeks, even months,
on the highest profile cases.

Now that life without parole is more often used, it has become acceptable
to some who once might have objected to it. And perhaps some people who
saw themselves as supporters of the death penalty have come around to
believing that it is a little too much like revenge instead of justice.
The latter is part of punishment. The former never should be.

(source: News & Observer)

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