Letter to the editor: Issues with the death penalty

Issues with the death penalty

It is often asked by death penalty proponents, "Wouldn't you want the person who killed your loved one to be executed?" However, what is the cost of that execution? After all, no systems are perfect. That means the Justice System and, particularly, the federal and state systems of capital punishment must also be imperfect.

Since 1976, when the US Supreme Court once again deemed the death penalty constitutional, there have been roughly 1,437 executions in the US. Since 1973 there have been 156 people exonerated from death row for murders they had not committed. One must wonder how many innocent people on death row did not get exonerated.

If there was only a scant one percent failure rate in criminal convictions resulting in execution, of those 1,437 executions 14 were innocent people. A five percent failure rate would be 71 innocent people and ten percent would be 143. If it seems hard to believe that the system is so problematic that innocent people would be allowed to fall so far through the cracks that they could be executed, look at the system itself.

The Death Penalty information Center cites the competence of legal counsel as a critical factor in whether the death sentence is applied. There have been cases where defense lawyers have fallen asleep in court or were drunk. Leroy White was executed in 2011 due to one lawyer misunderstanding the law and another let his client miss an appeals date. Furthermore, many lawyers in murder cases are court appointed. They are overburdened with cases and often lack experience representing clients in a death penalty trial.

Additionally, the appellate courts are not a series of safety nets designed to catch and release wrongfully convicted defendants. Appeals are based on whether proper procedure was followed. When someone is exonerated from death row it is often due to the involvement of outside parties who take up someone's cause.

There is a racial element to sentences of death. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty points out that 30 years of studies shows that minorities are given death sentences far more then their white counterparts. In 1987 the US Supreme Court actually ruled that such racial disparity did not constitute "equal protection under the law". Moreover, prosecutors sometimes try to "whiten up" juries by seeking the disqualification of black jurors.

Finally, it bears mentioning that, unlike the court system (where verdicts are often decided on unreliable witness memory, conflicting expert opinions, the competence of representation often boiling down to how much money a defendant has to spend on their own defense, and occasionally the prejudices of prosecutors or jurors), the medical profession, juxtaposed, relies on years of university training and expertise. Yet, a CBS report showed that 5 percent (12 million) outpatients are misdiagnosed yearly. The opinion that many innocent people have been executed should not be all that hard to believe when troubling failure rates are found in considerably more scientifically based systems.

As Freddie Lee Pitts, an innocent man released from Florida's death row said, "You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can't release him from the grave." Therefore, the emotionally charged "Wouldn't you want the person who killed your loved one to be executed?" is the wrong question. Rather, the more practical question is, "Should society be willing to accept the execution of the innocent if that's the price to pay for executing the guilty?" If one wishes to support the death penalty that is the question one must honestly answer, and be able to live with.

— Jason Francis Clarksburg, Mass.


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