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Sunday, October 2, 2011

When the State Murders Someone...

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the death penalty in the aftermath of a number of incidents in the past few weeks. I am generally opposed to the practice but that feeling has been a general one for the most part. I am opposed because I don't feel that it is a deterrent. I believe it harms the people who have to carry out the executions. And I deeply believe that our justice system is so flawed that we can never be sure that the person we are putting to death is truly and unequivocally guilty beyond all doubt. Recent events have solidified my position and clarified it for me in an almost agonizing way.

In the past few weeks several incidents have come up. The first being the obnoxious cheering by audience members at the announcement by Texas Governor Rick Perry that he had presided over 234 executions during his time as governor. What Perry didn't mention and the press didn't bother to either was that at least one of those executions turns out to be almost certainly of an innocent man - Cameron Todd Willingham. Perry claims he has no problem sleeping at night and doesn't believe that there have been any problems in his state. However the Willingham case was being investigated and Perry fired the chief investigator and ordered the commission that was looking into it to terminate its inquiry. Another board that routinely reviews cases such as this was told that it could review any case in Texas they wanted to - except the Willingham case. So much for that awesome certainty.

Two more executions were scheduled in Texas a couple of weeks ago. One of them was a man who participated in a particularly nasty racist killing, confessed to that killing, refused his appeals and claimed he didn't mind being put to death. Some of the family members of the victim objected to the death penalty in this case.

The other case was stayed by the Supreme Court for some technical issues for a while but then allowed to go forward.

And of course, there is Troy Davis. Troy Davis was no angel. He may have been present when the officer was killed. The so-called ballistic evidence was flawed and proven to be so and testified to be flawed in one of Davis' appeal hearings. Of the nine witnesses who testified against him, seven have recanted, and several of those have pointed the finger at one of the two remaining witnesses as the actual shooter. Many of the witnesses have said they were threatened by the actual shooter, or by the police themselves. No other physical evidence ties Davis to the shooting. Is he guilty? It is a pretty paltry case on which to put someone to death.

My point is this - in the end it seemed like the District Attorney (who said he would have never sought the death penalty if he was trying the case today), the Board of Parole and Pardons (who stated that the witness recantations caused them to have serious doubts about Davis' guilt), the Georgia Supreme Court (who voted 3-2 to uphold his conviction - the dissenters said that the trial was too racially charged to be fair), the US Supreme Court (voted 5-4 not to stay the execution), all seemed more interested in upholding the process rather than interested in upholding justice. And there was the really incredible statement by Justice Scalia that "there is nothing in the Constitution that says we have to set an innocent man free if he has been convicted by a jury of his peers." WTF??? And yes, Scalia was talking about Troy Davis.

Process is the paperwork, the following the procedures, the filing the briefs, the arguments and so on. But doing the things that are "normally" done just for the sake of doing them. Not rocking the boat. And certainly not taking a stand on the actual case because that would be having to admit somewhere, somehow, that someone or a bunch of someones made an awful mistake.

That the guy who really killed that policeman is still walking around out there loose. And he still is - even though Troy Davis is now dead and buried. That all the pressuring the witnesses and lying about those bullet casings and all the rest got someone on death row so they could say they got the guy. Only they didn't. So the family of the slain officer could get closure. Except they won't get that. Killing Troy Davis won't bring back their son/father/husband. Killing the guy who really killed him won't either, unfortunately.

But no one will now ever know the truth. Because Davis is dead. Now everyone will stop looking. The investigation is closed. The real killer got away with it. He's been bragging to people about it.


I read a scholarly paper about crime and punishment a lot of years ago. The real deterrent is the swiftness and the surety of the punishment, not the severity of it. Especially here when the death penalty is so unevenly applied, and because of the appeals process, which is also very uneven, and which takes forever. In the Davis case - 22 years.

People who commit horrible crimes are not thinking to themselves "Gee. I shouldn't do this because I will probably get caught and if I do they will put me to death."

No. They are thinking "Gee. If I do this I probably won't get caught, but if I do I can get a good lawyer and he can probably get me off."

That is why the death penalty is not a deterrent. Only about 60% of murders are solved, and only a very small portion of those are considered death penalty cases. Several states do not currently have the death penalty as an option. That fact has not seemed to affect murder rates on those states.

The cost of incarceration is an argument given by some death penalty proponents as a reason to put people to death. However the idea that killing someone to save money is a reason for doing it is pretty abhorrent on its own. Never mind that it is a false premise. The costs of a capital murder trial plus the appeals and the execution process far exceed the costs of even a lengthy incarceration. Estimates range between about $32,000 to $47,000 per year depending on the state and the facility. The cost of a death penalty case from start to finish (which may include a couple decades of incarceration at the upper end of the price spectrum) ranges from a low of about $1.2 million to a high of nearly $3.5 million. So if saving money is your argument then you should be arguing to abolish the death penalty.

But the argument should be on the moral grounds. If we believe that it is wrong to kill, then it is wrong to kill, period. It is just as wrong for the state - representing all of us - to coldly and with premeditation and much planning and forethought to kill someone - as it was for that individual to do so. After all, as Keith Olbermann stated, "at least the individual has some excuse, as poor as it may have been, for what he or she did. We, that is, the state on our behalf, do not."

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