Let me make this perfectly clear at the beginning: I am all for the death penalty. I have no problem with the state extracting the ultimate liberty from a person when the crime is so heinous & so indisputable that no other punishment would be suitable. No problem with death penalty in those cases.
The problem is those cases are so rare that the death penalty is almost not an option.
Since 1973 & as of March 2009, there have been 132 death row prisoners exonerated. That is a huge number. 132. People who were sentenced to die but were innocent. The jurors were convinced the evidence was undeniable & after all the expensive appeals, the sentence stood. It wasn't until new evidence was found that innocent people were set free.
How many more innocent people were actually executed by the state?
And when we look at the disparity of race & economics & educational levels of people on death row, verses the sentences for the same crime of middle-to-upper class whites, it should cause another pause: we are executing the poorest, the minorities, & the people with the least ability to have an adequate defense.
Then there is the case of Cameron Todd Willingham who was executed in TX for the arson murder of his children. The saddest part of it all is that the investigation findings were that of old wives tales instead of real science. The forensics is that it was an accidental fire & not arson. (See New Yorker article by David Gann.)
There was a 20/20 piece on this a few months ago & the judge who heard the case was adamant: the fire was set by Willingham. The evidence proved it, evidence, he said, was based on Willingham's past as a down-right mean human being. Fine. Maybe Willingham was an SOB but we don't execute people for being mean.
And the judge said there was a Devil Worship angle. That's right: Willingham liked heavy metal music, a sure sign of Devil worship. (No, I'm not making this up.) And to make matters worse, the burn pattern was in the design of a pentagram, something the educated fire researchers say was mere happenstance (if even believed the burn pattern made that at all.)
Now we learn that the TX governor may have been playing politics with the Willingham case & tried to stone wall efforts to look into the possibility of executing an innocent man. (See current.com article.)
The problem is that we cannot go back & apologize to Willingham if we find out TX made its decision based on bad science, bad logic, a completely ignorant judge, & a political motivation to get votes by a TX governor. Once we carry out the sentence, it cannot be reversed.
There is a reason why the death penalty appeals process is lenghty & costly for the state: we value human liberty so much that we are willing to go to enormous lengths to keep from executing an innocent person. We even hold as a regal truth that we would rather 9 guilty go free to make sure just 1 innocent is not deprived of liberty. However, in our quest for vengeance --- not justice --- we have lost sight of liberty & how valuable that liberty should be, & that the priority of gov't is to protect all people, even those who have committed heinous crimes.
As much as I think some criminals deserve to be fried like a Crispy Critter, the cost is just not worth it --- the cost to the tax payer & the cost to our collective soul if we blow it, as in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Life without parole is cheaper & puts criminals in a place where he will always be subject to to the penalties deemed by society, but with the chance to live should new evidence come to light later on.
It's time we told our brethren in TX to stop with the vengeance of the Taliban & start acting like Americans who value liberty.