On the Death Penalty
Posted on September 1, 2009
I never agree with Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist. But on this one, he may have a point. He wrote a column today about the plight of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texan who was put to death for the crime of starting a fire in his own home, a fire that killed his three small children.
He was charged with murder, and refused to take a plea deal because he insisted that he was innocent. It turned out that he was right and the folks who put him executed him were wrong. Later evidence proved to exonerate him, but that exoneration did little good. He is still dead.
Without getting into all of the facts in this particular case, it is clear that we live with an imperfect justice system. The system makes mistakes. Wrong people are accused and convicted. Witnesses sometimes misremember the facts, and sometimes they lie for their own self-interests. Sometimes cops make mistakes, and sometimes prosecutors reach the wrong conclusions.
But the death penalty, when carried out, is always perfect. It always kills the target, and kills the target permanently. And once you kill the accused, you can’t really turn back the clock. If the system turns out to be wrong, as it does on occasion, saying you are sorry doesn’t do much good.
DNA testing has proven to be bad for the death penalty. Doing those tests after the accused has been killed, and finding out that the accused was actually innocent (which has happened on more than one occasion), has raised questions in my mind about why we have the death penalty in the first place
Like many Americans, I used to be strong proponent of the death penalty. In the 1970’s, when crime was out of control, when our cities became shooting galleries, and when gang-bangers and drug bandits preyed on the innocent and the unarmed, the death penalty was seen as one tool to combat lawlessness.
But that tool has been applied all too often with a tint of unfairness. There is a perception, whether it is true or not, that blacks are more likely to get death than whites. And in too many cases, for my taste, innocent people have been put to death.
I understand why the death penalty is still popular in some parts of the country, especially where crime is still prevalent. I also understand and appreciate the desire to put some evil-doers to death, especially monsters like John Wayne Gacy and Jeffery Dahmer. I also get why the death penalty is a very good tool for law enforcement to compel convictions of suspects who will plead guilty to avoid the gas chamber.
But I am bothered by the examples of people who are put to death even though they are innocent, like the one mentioned by Bob Herbert today. We should rethink the death penalty in this country. If even one innocent person is wrongly put to death on behalf of the state, for me, that is enough to get rid of it.