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Killing the Penalty


By Alex Carter

Anti-death penalty forces have been reeling since the mug of Willie Horton shone in homes across America almost 10 years ago. But now questions about the morality of capital punishment have resurfaced, hopefully in a form that will destroy one of the last remnants of institutional barbarism in American society.

According to a study done by the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty organization in Washington D.C., since capital punishment was reinstated in 1973, 69 people awaiting execution on death row have been set free. They were released because they were either improperly convicted or evidence providing their innocence was discovered after their sentencing. The study also states that these unlucky souls represent only slightly more than 1 percent of the nearly 6,000 people who have been sentenced to die in the last 24 years.

The study adds a new dimension to debate about capital punishment. Arguments against the death penalty which question its morality and humanity have proven ineffective to proponents of capital punishment, but even those who feel no moral qualms about executing convicted murderers should be able to agree one point: any punishment as severe and final as death should only be exacted if we are absolutely sure that we are executing the guilty party.

Much of our national pride is rooted in our criminal justice system, which mandates that a defendant's guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Developments in recent years have added to the myth that the innocent should not fear the American courts. DNA tests seem to allow authorities to identify killers with certainty. And highly publicized trials such as those of O.J. Simpson and the police officers who beat Rodney King confirmed the belief that verdicts which seem to be incorrect only favor the defendants.

The Center's study shows that the innocent do indeed have something to fear. Supporters of capital punishment are quick to point out that many of those released from death row are set free due to technicalities. But the term "technicality" is a euphemism used to describe a flawed judicial process.

And flawed processes increase the chances of flawed verdicts. Evidence of frequent mistakes in judicial proceedings should lower our confidence in the accuracy of courtroom verdicts.

The most frightening aspect of the study is that one percent represents only a minimum rate of error. Those 69 people represent only the mistakes that the system caught in time, and leaves out the less fortunate people such as David Wayne Spence, who was executed in Texas last April even though the police lieutenant who supervised the investigation of Spence now believes that he is innocent. The Center did not measure the amount of errors which were caught after the fact, and it could not count the ones which were never caught at all.

An appreciable error rate in applying the death penalty should not be surprising, however, considering the numerous ways in which the system can break down. Since accused murderers usually cannot afford to hire their own legal representation, their lawyers often lack competence. The jury and/or judge may also be prejudiced against the defendant on racial, ethnic or other grounds. Furthermore, the state may base its case on the testimony of convicted criminals who have been offered reduced sentences and other perks in exchange for their testimony, as happened in the Spence case.

Yet instead of attempting to decrease the chances of executing innocent persons, the criminal justice system has taken steps in recent years to make that horrible scenario even more likely. Criminal court judges, district attorneys and other local officials continue to win elections by boasting that they are" tough on crime." As a result, movements to shorten the time between sentencing and execution are spreading throughout states which allow for capital punishment. Of the 401 executions completed since the death penalty was reinstated, about 70 percent of them have occurred in the 1990s.

But less time between sentencing and execution means less time for flaws in the trial to be discovered less time for new evidence to be found. Being tough on crime does not give us an excuse to be lenient on justice.

Regardless of whether we adhere to the philosophy of an eye for an eye, until the American legal system becomes flawless, we should kill the death penalty.

Alex M. Carter '00 is a Crimson editor

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