On Why The Death Penalty Should Be Abolished

Monday, September 12, 2011

I found an article in one of my favorite sites to visit, Skepchick, about the sad case of Cameron Todd Willingham. The New Yorker had an in-depth article about his case back in 2009 called
Trial By Fire. As it turns out, the "science" behind the evidence was wives-tale science and Mr. Willingham was indeed innocent. Too bad this evidence didn't come to light 5 years earlier; the state of Texas killed Willingham in 2004.

For crimes he didn't commit.

The long article is well-worth the read. It picks apart the case bit by bit and dramatically introduces the actual science behind fires and how they spread; the science that would have exonerated Willingham.
The article is flying around the internets again in the wake of Governor Perry's applause-laden response to NBC's Brian Williams' charge that he has killed more people (234) than any other Governor in our history.

I do not mean this post to be an anti-Perry screed or a missive critical of "conservative Christians."  Rather, I mean it to be an anti-death penalty piece.  While it indeed shocks me that people who vaunt their Christian Cred would be so supportive of the death penalty, I have to remember to take their brand of evangelical Christianity along with their conservative nature.  Guns and the death penalty are OK by this breed of conservative, and it is what it is.  It ain't changing.

I would ask, however, that they remember that Jesus suffered the death penalty as well.

That snark aside, that anybody who is innocent dies at the hands of the state is terrible.  That they get convicted on evidence akin to folklore is unimaginable.  While I only care about Rick Perry inasmuch as he is a possible frontrunner for Republicans, I do have to say that I am massively disturbed by his dismissive attitude towards people on death row.  In essence, he responded to Williams' question regarding sleepless nights for sending people to their deaths with a statement about Texas' due process being so "thoughtful" that nobody innocent could possibly be put to death.

This, of course, flies in the face of reality, in which innocent people are put to death (see the article I link above).  Perry is an interesting case study in that he actually went as far a firing a panel of investigators who were about to prove Willingham's innocence.  Maybe because he didn't want the political hit of having killed an innocent man, maybe to bury his head in the sand, maybe any number of maybes; what he does by his deeds and words is help prove that the state killing anyone is unreasonable, irrational, wrong-headed, barbaric and dangerous.  A state which is allowed to kill its citizens, whether through a fair trial, a kangaroo court, scientifically-valid evidence, or wives-tale witch-doctor nonsense, is not a state I wish to live in.

Again, this article's step-by-step move through the process for Willingham is so very telling of the flaw of the death penalty.  On top of that, Willingham was given a court-appointed attorney who was equally convinced  of his guilt and provided half-assed defense of a "guilty" client in hopes Willingham was convicted.  This speaks to our public defense system and the need for well-trained attorneys, with decent funding, and workloads that allow for an attorney to mount a decent defense (as well as for oversight in some way so that if a "bad" attorney is mis-handling a case a different attorney can come on board).  Just because a defendant can't afford a top-notch attorney to represent them against the state doesn't mean they shouldn't have access to one.

We do have a great system of justice here, regardless of how idiots like Nancy Grace abuse it in the MSM. We are innocent before being proven guilty, as opposed to the Napoleonic system of justice we see elsewhere whereby it is on a person to prove their innocence in front of a state who has accused them.  But even then we have gaps, as the Innocence Project so clearly shows given that to date, 273 people have been exonerated across the country.  That even one innocent person has spent any time at all in prison is terrible, but thankfully, even law enforcement (by and large) supports the Innocence Project; judges, cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys want to make sure we're doing this justice thing right.  But that even one person is killed by the state is unacceptable, especially when you add to that lazy or callous attorneys and "investigators" with reputations to protect.  Then it becomes a matter of life-and-death for our Democracy.


Monk-in-Training 6:11 PM  
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Monk-in-Training 6:12 PM  

I really don't think most of these people read the Bible, or at least read large portions of it. I have to think that most of them are cultural Christians, to give me comfort.

Be that as it may, God specifically mentions putting to death an innocent, and how wrong that is. I would use the Word itself against those who would argue in support of killing someone even THOUGHT to be innocent.

Exodus 23:6 "Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 7 Have nothing to do with a false charge10 and do not put an innocent11 or honest person to death,12 for I will not acquit the guilty. (NIV)

steves 7:23 PM  

One of my professors was very involved in the Innocence Project. It is a worthy cause. I am sure that some may disagree, but I don't think the Bible clearly abolishes the death penalty. That being said, the simple fact that some innocent people die is enough for me abolish it. In addition, it has no effect on the crime rate, so it is not any kind of deterrent. I will admit that my opposition wavers when I read about a very heinous crime, but I fail to see any good reason why some states still have it.

steves 7:24 PM  

BTW, Michigan was one of the earliest to get rid of the death penalty.

Monk-in-Training 10:15 PM  

I wish the Bible did, in fact, abolish the death penaty, but I agree with you, it does not.

What it DOES do is require a great deal of caution on the side of the person condemning someone, that at least should present some of those who applauded Gov. Perry's execution totals a reason for reflection.

Bob 7:12 AM  
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Bob 7:13 AM  

Somewhat OT:

I caught (could stomach) all of five minutes of last night's Republican debate/freakshow. A question was asked if a 30 year old man without insurance needed six months of care, should the government just let him die. Someone in the audience yelled out emphatically "yes!"

While not the same as a crowd chearing the death penalty, it seems typical of these idiots. As soon as that 30 year old is their relative, they will come running with their had out.

Smitty 7:44 AM  

Regardless of what the bible says about it, like steve, i believe that even 1 single person being killed by the government who was factually innocent is enough to abolish the death penalty.

Through one of my clients, I have done some legislative work for Michigan's Innocence Project at Cooley. People start out erroneously believing that the IP is some sort of let-prisoners-out-early project. Once once I clarify the project and what it does (and how it does it) - and of course joke at they *do* let people out of prison early because they are INNOCENT - I have not found a single legislator of either party opposed to the IP's efforts or unwilling to support legislation they need.

I did notice, though, that Governor Perry fired the panel that was investigating Willingham's trial as they neared finding him factually innocent.

Streak 9:33 PM  

I remember years ago, an extensive study by the Columbia School of Journalism (I believe--it was in the Washington post in the early 90s, I think) examined death penalty cases and found that while you would think that the capital cases would be tighter with more attention to the law, they were the opposite. So the accused in those cases had a much better chance of being convicted in a capital case where the same level of evidence might not in a non-dp case.

I am glad Monk noted the Exodus verse. I didn't know that one. I assumed that there was something about that, but it is nice to see it in print. Just another example of how the Bible is interpreted literally in cases where it is about other people (cough, gays), but figuratively when it is about me (money, wealthy, forgiveness, loving enemies, etc). If that verse were held up with the same reverence as those attacking gays, we would have a lot of fundys opposed to the death penalty, or at least far more interested in making sure everyone was guilty.

BTW, I realized that it wasn't that my blog was quiet, but that the real conversation was going on over here. That is what I get for not reading on my Ipad for a few days. :)

Best Beers in Australia 12:29 PM  

Great article, thought provoking

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