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Capital Punishment

Copyright © 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003-2007 by David E. Ross

As more death penalties are decreed and more executions occur, the debate over capital punishment continues unabated. Questions arise over the purpose and validity of executions: Why do we do it? Does it work? What does it mean in a modern society?

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A Comparison

According to the latest crime-rate statistics from the FBI (2004), the murder rate in the U.S. — where capital punishment is legal and executions occur — is 5.5 murders per 100,000 population.

According to the latest crime-rate statistics from Statistics Canada (2004), the murder rate in Canada — where capital punishment was abolished some years ago — is 2.0. In England, which also abolished capital punishment, the rate (2002) is 1.6.

29 January 2006

The FBI reports that the U.S. national rate violent crimes was 469.2 per 100,000 in 2005; the national murder rate was 5.6 in 2005.

Texas has the highest number of executions of all states, 398 since 1982 (the second highest being Virginia with 98, a quarter of the number in Texas). Despite the sureness of punishment in Texas, the 2005 violent crime rate in that state was 529.7 (13% higher than the national rate); and the 2005 murder rate in Texas was 6.2 (11% higher than the national rate).

Is capital punishment really a deterrent?

13 August 2007

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Even the basic issue of whether capital punishment is a deterrent against crime remains unresolved. Murder rates in Texas and Florida — where executions occur regularly — do not seem significantly lower than in other states where either the death penalty does not exist or it is long delayed by extensive appeals.

Capital punishment has doubtful deterrence against the following:

These are indeed unforgivable crimes. But the death penalty is meaningless as a deterrent if these killers give no thought to the consequences of their acts. Likewise, young gang members who commit drive-by shootings are undeterred if they — characteristic of most young persons — think they are invulnerable and will live forever. And how much deterrence is there against the obsessive outrage McVeigh had because he perceived excesses of government or against terrorists who accept martyrdom to promote their causes? If the death penalty is extended to additional crimes such as rape, drug dealing, and child molestation as some advocate, will those who commit such terrible crimes lose their inhibitions against killing victims and witnesses? After all, they cannot be executed twice. Would extending the death penalty to other crimes thus reduce any deterrent effect?

More important than trying to determine whether the death penalty is effective in deterring crime, I am concerned about what it signifies about our nation. A civilized, law-abiding society has the ability — the responsibility — to behave better than uncivilized criminals. If we are truly civil, moral individuals, should we not treat criminals better than they treat their victims? Murderers put their victims to death, but why should we — through our government — do the same to the murderers? Why should we stoop to their level?

Watch carefully on TV. Watch the families of the victims when a murderer is sentenced to die. Watch the survivors when the execution actually occurs. Watch their faces. They are not interested in justice. They are interested only in revenge. And they have our government — they have us who elect that government — as partners in a blood vendetta. No, I have never had a close family member murdered. But a coworker of mine was murdered, and another was killed by a hit-and-run driver. The distance of time and relationship allows me to be objective. If my wife or one of my children were killed, I too would possibly want revenge through the death of the murderer. But asking society to join me in my lust for the murderer's blood would still be wrong.

Those who support the death penalty are too distant from its application. Executions occur privately with a very small audience, not live on TV. No one except the executioner has to deal with capital punishment as a form of murder. No one except the family of the person sentenced to die has to deal with the possibility that the wrong person was executed.

7 June 1997

Now Karla Faye Tucker — a confessed murderer — is facing execution in Texas, despite pleas to Governor Bush for clemency from such defenders of capital punishment as Pat Robertson. Robertson became involved when Tucker found God in prison; she is now a "born again Christian".

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In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that those who are mentally retarded cannot be executed. In 2005, that ruling was extended to prohibit executing those who were children when they committed murder.

15 March 2005

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Of course, some pro-execution Texans are a bit squeamish about executing a woman. Yet Texans are not squeamish about lowering the age for capital punishment to 14 — an age when most boys are too young to shave. They are certainly not squeamish about executing a man so mentally impaired he did not even realize he had been convicted or that he was imprisoned on death row.

Robertson sees in Tucker an example of religious awakening that should be allowed to live so she can bring other convicts to the light. Would Robertson be campaigning so hard to save Tucker from execution if she had found God through Orthodox Judaism or if she had found Allah?

If Tucker receives clemency in Texas, where more executions — all men — took place in 1997 than in all other states combined, Governor Bush will clearly demonstrate gender bias. If one truly pious Jew or Moslem is then executed, I will add religious discrimination to the accusation.

23 January 1998

Although I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, I did not add my voice to those seeking clemency for Karla Faye Tucker. We cannot end capital punishment by attacking each death sentence individually. That would require an ongoing, exhausting campaign because it would not eliminate the law allowing the government to participate in a blood vendetta. For each victory against the executioner, we would then see someone else sent to death row.

In any case, why campaign for Tucker and not some man on death row? Why seek life for a born-again Christian and not for an atheist? Pursuing compassion for a compassionate figure does nothing to undermine the death penalty.

3 February 1998

Only six days after Karla Faye Tucker died, Texas murdered Steven Ceon Renfro. He, too, was a Christian. His last words were: "Take my hand, Lord Jesus. I'm coming home." But neither Pat Robertson nor the Pope pleaded for clemency. Renfro was not on 60 Minutes. Instead of the 12,000 phone calls to Governor Bush about Tucker, there were only seven calls about Renfro. Nadas, a dog sentenced to die in Oregon for chasing (but not catching) livestock, received more attention and sympathy than did Renfro. (Nadas also received a reprieve; its death sentence has been commuted to life in Utah.)

Unlike Tucker, whose execution was reported instantly around the world, Renfro's death did not reach the Los Angeles Times until three days after his execution. He was a human being (not a malamute-collie mix) who committed a great wrong, and the state and people of Texas behaved no better than he did.

12 February 1998

The United Nations issued a report condemning the use of the death penalty in the United States, especially because the actual application of capital punishment falls disproportionately on poor minorities: "Race, ethnic origin, and economic status appear to be key determinants of who will and who will not receive a sentence of death." The report questions the deterrent effect of executing 29 persons with severe mental disabilities — persons who probably could understand neither the wrongness of their actions nor the fact that they would suffer the ultimate punishment — since executions resumed in 1976. State laws that permit children to be executed were also attacked as violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States signed. Noting the rising demand for "victims rights" and echoing my comments about the government being a partner in a blood vendetta, the report asserts: "The courts should not become a forum for retaliation."

4 April 1998

In recent years, over 80 individuals on various death rows across the nation were found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced, some within a very few days of being executed. The problem of false convictions has led for calls for a moratorium against the death penalty, even from law-and-order Republicans such as Illinois Governor George Ryan.

Clearly, false convictions undermine any justification for the death penalty:

To assert that "the justice system works" when an innocent person is freed after being falsely sent to death row is worse than wrong. It is cruel and self-serving. The system definitely does not work when we allow the lust for blood vengeance to put the life of someone at extreme risk, even if that life is spared before it is extinguished.

And if innocence is proven too late, what part of the justice system worked? What consolation or compensation can we offer to an innocent individual who is executed after being falsely convicted? As citizens and voters, do we really want to be participants in such executions?

Deciding that the justice system was indeed broken with respect to death sentences in his state, Governor Ryan spent the last weekend of his term commuting all of the 156 pending death sentences in Illinois.

14 February 2001
Updated 5 November 2003

On 11 June 2001, our national government killed Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 men, women, and children in April 1995. Yes, McVeigh committed a horrific crime; and his death seems insignificant when compared with the 168 deaths he caused.

But what purpose was served by McVeigh's death?

Did you listen to the comments from the families of McVeigh's victims, first when his execution was delayed and then when he was actually killed? They wanted justice, but it was the justice of a blood vendetta and not the justice of a civilized society.

In the meantime, after 22 years in prison for multiple murders, Jerry Townsend was freed from Florida prison when DNA tests proved that he was innocent of at least some of the murders. This is merely one example of a number of cases in recent years where an individual was falsely convicted of murder. How many others are there not yet discovered? How many individuals — convicted but innocent — will actually be executed?

17 June 2001

Putting a Face on a Victim

In 1982, Daralyn Johnson was raped and murdered in Idaho. Charles Fain was arrested and, in 1983, convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. For over 17 years, Fain's execution was delayed by his appeals. Charles Fain

Those who support capital punishment decry such lengthy delays: "Justice delayed is justice denied." And they denounce the legal appeals as nit-picking attempts to use technicalities to prevent punishment of a criminal.

On 25 August 2001, Charles Fain walked out of prison. DNA testing confirmed that the pubic hairs found on Daralyn Johnson's body and clothes — key evidence in convicting Fain — were not his.

Daralyn Johnson was the victim of a criminal's act. Worse, Charles Fain was our victim, a victim of our justice system. We — our government — almost murdered Fain for a reason no better than Johnson was murdered.

Of course, some will argue that the release of Charles Fain proves our criminal justice system works. But does it? Daralyn Johnson's killer remains at large. The conviction and sentencing of an innocent man discredits any deterrence that capital punishment might have on actual killers. And Fain lost over 17 years of his life. Neither Johnson, Fain, nor the public was served.

In the last ten years, 11 persons convicted of murder and sentenced to death have been freed by DNA testing. How many of those who were actually executed might also have been innocent? Their blood is on our hands as long as our laws allow capital punishment.

25 August 2001

'Wizard of Id' cartoon, hanging 'cancelled on account of DNA'

The Anti-Deterrent

Capital punishment creates contention between the United States and other nations. Almost all other nations have banned capital punishment. Further, they will not extradite persons accused of crimes if, upon conviction, they might be executed.

The U.S. has repeatedly been stymied trying to bring foreign nationals to trial when the defendants have fled to their home nations. One case involves Armando Garcia, who is accused of murdering David March, a Sheriff's deputy in Los Angeles County (California). Shortly after March was shot to death during a routine traffic stop in 2002, Garcia fled back to Mexico. Under Mexican law, no citizen can be extradited to be tried for a criminal act if the sentence will be execution. Estimates of Mexicans wanted in the U.S. for trial for murder vary from 60 to 300. Similar situations have involved blocked extraditions from France, Canada, and other nations.

The solution seems rather simple. Make an enforceable commitment that sentencing will not include capital punishment. This has already worked in a few cases involving France.

But no, our politicians would rather support government-sanctioned blood vendettas than bring criminals to justice. They suggest such remedies as violating the sovereignty of other nations by sending our police there to kidnap the accused. (And how would we react if those nations did that here?) They fail to recognize that other nations have their own laws and are not governed by our Congress and President. They rant and rail against laws that are more just and civilized than our own.

Here we see where capital punishment prevents any punishment at all for murder. Here we see where capital punishment is an anti-deterrent.

29 January 2006

An Innocent Man Executed in Texas?
and Other Events

The state of Texas — with the dubious record of executing the most convicts — executed Cameron Willingham in 2004 for murder-by-arson. "Expert" testimony by prosecution witnesses convinced the jury that the pattern of burning in Willingham's house could have been caused only by the presence of some form of flammable liquid poured on the floor. At the time of Willingham's execution, the forensic science of arson had already discredited the assumptions expressed by those witnesses.

John J. Lentini, the former chairman of the forensic science committee of the International Association of Arson Investigators, led a panel that reviewed the evidence presented at Willingham's trial. According to the panel's report, the fire in Willingham's home might easily have been an accident and not arson at all. Lentini said in an interview that he was convinced that Texas had executed an innocent man.

In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Bobby Lee Holmes could not be executed in South Carolina because his murder trial was severely flawed. Convicted of murder in 1995 and sentenced to death, Holmes attempted during his trial to cast doubt on the evidence against him. However, the judge in his case ruled that Holmes would not be allowed to offer any testimony that identified someone else who might have committed the crime, that the evidence against him had been contaminated by the police, or that he was being framed. Holmes can be retried, but now he will be allowed to present evidence that might make a jury doubt his guilt.

The Supreme Court effectively ruled that the rules of evidence in South Carolina supported "railroading" defendants and denied them the ability to defend themselves in court. Prior to Holmes, how many railroaded defendants were executed in South Carolina?

Today, a jury proved that our society can indeed behave better than our criminals. In Alexandria, Virginia, a jury denied the prosecution's request to execute Zacarias Moussaoui (the so-called 20th conspirator). Heeding pleas by some families of those who died on 11 September 2001, the jury will allow Moussaoui to serve a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

3 May 2006

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