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The Death Penalty Debate Heats Up in America - 2003-03-11


Earlier this year Illinois State’s retiring governor, George Ryan, made history and shocked the world by sparing the lives of 167 death row inmates and commuting their sentences to life in prison without parole. Proponents of the death penalty and victims’ families were outraged. They accused Governor Ryan of subverting the U.S. justice system. Opponents meanwhile cheered the departing governor’s move and regard it as a harbinger of what’s to come in the year ahead.

2003 has been called the year of death penalty reform by those who favor its abolition. Currently, there are more than 200 death penalty bills under debate in state legislatures across the United States.

Anti-death penalty advocates say the American public is more informed about the dark side of capital punishment, especially in light of the dozen high profile cases where DNA evidence has cleared innocent men from death row. DNA or so-called genetic fingerprinting is 99.9% accurate.

Supporters of the death penalty see things differently. While acknowledging that DNA evidence is clearly something that people sentenced to death should have access to, along with good legal counsel, proponents of capital punishment don’t see any reason to get rid of the death penalty.

“There are several reasons why support for the death penalty is strong in the United States,” says David Elliot, communications director at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is a non-profit organization established in 1976 that lobbies for the repeal of capital punishment.

“We are a country that was built and born really on the basis of guns and a lot of gun-related violence,” Mr. Elliot says. “We are also a country that is steeped in religiosity. And a lot of people find support for the death penalty in the Old Testament of the Bible, the part that says ‘an eye for an eye’. So there are a lot of reasons why support for the death penalty in the U.S. remains strong. But thankfully, support is starting to erode according to recent polls.”

America’s support for the death penalty puts it at odds with the rest of the industrialized world, says David Elliot. Fifty-five percent of nations are abolitionist in nature he says, meaning they do not have the death penalty. Among advanced countries he notes only Japan and the United States continue to carry out capital punishment.

However, John McAdams, associate professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says the abolition does not necessarily reflect public opinion.

“The first thing to remember, is that where public opinion is concerned, the U.S. isn’t necessarily that distinctive. There are frequent polls in Western Europe showing in various countries majority support for the death penalty, particularly if terrorism is mentioned,” the professor says. “So what in fact drives death penalty policy in a lot of countries is elite opinions. And European political systems are in general more elite dominated, less egalitarian, less populist and less pluralistic than the American political system.”

But Americans are asking more questions about the death penalty than they were 10 years ago. That is mostly due to news reports that over 100 death-row inmates have been determined to be innocent of the crime for which they were sentenced to die.

But Professor McAdams says the number of innocents cleared from death row is vastly inflated.

“The last time I looked at the web site that lists the supposedly innocent people who got off the hook, they listed 102 people,” he says. “In fact, many of those, indeed perhaps a majority, were pretty clearly guilty. They did the murder but they got off on some procedural grounds. Actually, if you’re talking about people who got off on the basis of DNA evidence, actual hard, scientific evidence they didn’t do it, you’re not talking about 100 people, you’re talking about 10 or 12 people.”

If there is even a risk of executing an innocent person, should the death penalty be abandoned? Anti-death penalty advocates say yes. They also question whether the death penalty actually deters crime.

Locke Bowman, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, a public interest law firm that defends death-row inmates, doesn’t believe that capital punishment has a deterrent effect on crime – at least any more than life-in-prison without parole does.

“The question that you have to ask when you ask the question whether the death penalty deters murder is more specifically this: does the death penalty deter murder more than imposing the very severe punishment of natural life without parole?” he says.

Death penalty proponents argue that capital punishment does indeed deter crime and without the death penalty Professor McAdams says innocent lives would be at risk.

“A lot of us who favor the death penalty would say that prudent policy is to have a death penalty, prudent policy because if it does deter, we certainly want to deter murders. If it doesn’t deter, we’ve simply executed murderers for no deterrent effect,” Professor McAdams says. “And if you have to choose between risking the lives of murderers and risking the lives of innocent citizens, a lot of us would simply prefer to risk the lives of murderers rather than innocent citizens.”

Anti-death penalty advocates also question the fairness of the process. They say that there is a bias in the system against blacks and other minorities who murder whites. This is disputed by death penalty supporters like Dudley Sharp, resource director for Justice for All, a victims’ rights group.

“Criminal justice data shows that white victims are by far the majority of victims in the secondary aggravating circumstances, which dominate capital statutes,” he says. “The overwhelming majority of capital crimes because of Supreme Court decisions, are those crimes, which have secondary aggravating offenses, like robbery, burglary, rape, carjacking and serial or multiple murders. When all of those are in a murder setting, that becomes a capital crime. And if you look at the criminal justice statistics, those crimes are absolutely dominated by white victims. So it’s the nature of the crime, not any targeting.”

Mr. Sharp adds that given the thoroughness of capital cases: the pretrial, the trial, the appeals process and the commutation process, the death penalty is one of the least arbitrary punishments anywhere in the world.

This extreme thoroughness also makes capital murder cases very costly. Locke Bowman with the MacArthur Justice Center argues that this money could be better spent.

“It’s a hugely costly and distracting process,” he says. “Each death penalty prosecution costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and becomes a focal point for in some cases literally decades before the sentence is actually carried out. Enormous resources are devoted to that which in my opinion ought more profitably to be used on other law enforcement purposes.”

Back in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty only to reverse that decision in 1976. Since then, the nation’s highest court has had multiple opportunities to rule the death penalty unconstitutional but has not done so. And while state legislators may be debating a variety of death penalty reform bills, politicians also pay attention to public opinion, which in spite of recent events remains in favor of capital punishment.