Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Death Penalty? Still? Really?

How does this country still have a death penalty? Besides being morally repugnant, capital punishment is a monumentally bad idea -- an arbitrarily applied punishment that mostly nets minorities and the poor.

The U.S. and Japan are the last industrial democracies in the world to still use the death penalty. In fact, the only countries that execute more of their own citizens than we do are China, Iran, and Pakistan (occasionally Saudi Arabia beats us too). What awesome company.

Furthermore, a fantastic organization called the Innocence Project has spent a lot of time and money over the years proving that innocent people get caught up in our criminal justice system and sent to death row. Through DNA testing, they have exonerated 241 people post-conviction, 17 of which were death row inmates on their way to the needle.

Now it appears as if death penalty opponents have what I long thought would bring this debate to a close: the execution of an innocent person.

Cameron Todd Willingham, put to death by the state of Texas in 2004 for murdering his three young daughters by setting fire to his own house, was the subject of a truly gut-churning piece by David Grann in the New Yorker (the full story is 17 pages long; if you don't have that kind of time, listen to the NPR version here).

It turns out that Willingham was almost undoubtedly innocent.

The Innocence Project, our own Chicago Tribune and Texas's Forensic Science Commission all conducted independent reviews of the evidence and all three found that the accusations of arson were completely without scientific merit.

Craig Beyler, the arson expert commissioned by Texas, found that the original investigator's findings defied "rational reasoning" and had a "characteristic of mystics or psychics." Beyler concluded that Texas had put a "legally and factually innocent man" to death.

Why didn't Willingham appeal his conviction? He did. A number of times. In every instance his pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears right up until his last statement to the Associated Press.
So let's get this straight: In 1991 a father is unable to rescue his three young girls from an accidental fire probably caused by faulty wiring. He is then accused of murdering his own children. His repeated proclamations of innocence are met mostly with people calling him a baby-killer. Finally, in 2004 he's walked into a room, strapped to a table and given a drug that blows up his heart.

That can actually happen in this country?

Furthermore, that can actually happen, and no one cares? It's seventh-string news behind Obama's address to schoolchildren and who's going to replace Paula Abdul on 'American Idol'?
In conjunction with Texas's discovery that its arson experts weren't so expert, a two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences has found that no forensic evidence except for DNA testing truly stands up under scientific scrutiny.

That means everything from fingerprints to bite mark analysis is basically without a firm scientific basis or national standard, yet we convict people all the time based on types of evidence like this.

In the face of such overwhelming uncertainty about our justice system, how can we justify the death penalty? Is one family's revenge worth the innocent life of another just to keep a broken system of executions in place?

1 comment:

Texas Moratorium Network said...

Sign a petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.