Sunday, 5 April 2009

Steve Goble's It's Debatable: Nothing sensible about the death penalty

News Journal

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray thinks the appeals process for death penalty cases is far too lengthy.

I can solve the problem in four words: Dump the death penalty.

The long appellate process sometimes defeats the possibility of justice being served, Cordray said last week. Long waits make it difficult when, after a dozen years in the courts, a retrial involving a new prosecutor and new police officials is required, he said.

"If it does lead to a retrial, it's very difficult to feel that fair justice can be achieved on a redo because so much changes over time, particularly in presenting factual evidence to juries," he said.

It is interesting Cordray mentioned things that change over time. One thing that often changes is the quality of forensic evidence. Better science and investigative techniques come along, and sometimes show the wrong people are on death row.

That, to me, is reason enough to dump the death penalty. If Cordray thinks redoing a trial is difficult, he should try redoing an execution.

On a gut level, I think some crimes merit death. Some evils make me lose all sympathy for the perpetrators.

The problem, of course, is making certain we get the right perpetrators. Too often, we don't.

The American Civil Liberties Union reports that since 1973, 123 people nationwide have been released from death row because they were innocent. Seven others were executed even though they probably were innocent. A study reported in the Stanford Law Review documents 350 capital convictions in which it was later proven the convict had not committed the crime. Of those, 25 people were executed. Fifty-five of the 350 cases took place in the 1970s, and another 20 between 1980 and 1985.

In many instances, DNA evidence is what sets innocent men free. Such evidence is relatively new -- it wasn't available when many people were wrongly convicted. A lengthy appeals process saved their lives, by keeping them alive until forensic evidence could prove their innocence.

The idea that innocent people might be run over while society seeks justice is appalling. When the issue is whether to take someone's life, "correct most of the time" is a worthless standard.

Today, about 3,350 people are on death row nationwide, the ACLU reports. Almost all are poor, many are mentally disabled, more than 40 percent are black and a disproportionate number are American Indian, Latino or Asian.

Ohio has 175 inmates on death row, Cordray's office reported last week. About half are black.

Some of these condemned may be innocent. How many are we willing to sacrifice?

Some argue capital punishment deters crime. Studies disagree with that claim. States that have death penalty laws do not have lower crime or murder rates than states without. States that abolished capital punishment show no significant changes in crime or murder rates, the ACLU says.

The Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit resource center in Washington, D.C., cites a national survey showing most police chiefs say the death penalty doesn't reduce homicides, because murderers don't think about possible punishments.

Think about most of those who commit crimes that could land them on death row. They're not our best and brightest. They often have limited ability to think beyond the next five minutes. They are in a rage, or hopped up on drugs, or desperate for their next fix. The last thing they are likely to consider is the consequences of their actions.

One more data point: A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of statistics from 2001 to 2007 shows Southern states, which execute far more inmates than the rest of the U.S. combined, have consistently had the highest per capita murder rates.

Some deterrent.

The ACLU cites numerous studies that show racial disparities in how the death penalty is applied. People who kill whites are more likely to receive a death sentence than those who kill minorities. Blacks who kill whites have the greatest chance of receiving a death sentence.

Cordray has said the appeals process properly results in second looks at some cases. Good for him. The next step is for him to realize that such instances are reason enough to flush the death penalty. He should use his office to promote such change.

According to Cordray's report, there are 21 inmates on Ohio's death row whose appeals are all but exhausted. Are any of them innocent? Maybe not, but I wonder. Is it worth the risk of executing them? No.

Evidence shows we have an imperfect judicial system, run by fallible human beings. Our courts get a lot of things right, and they have a lot of built-in protections to help assure they do. Still, mistakes are made. The merciful, sensible, moral thing to do is to not put convicts to death in the first place. We should work toward that.

In the meantime, let's not start erasing vital protections just to save time and fuss.

We're talking about human life here. It's worth the time and fuss.

Steve Goble is a copy editor and page designer for the News Journal. Look for his column, "It's Debatable," in the Community Conversation section every Sunday, and visit his blog on our Web site. E-mail him at


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