a bird and a bottle


The Trib Turns Against Capital Punishment
March 26, 2007, 10:54 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news, news & views

Maybe the tide really is turning.

san quentin execution chamber
(photo: San Quentin (CA) execution chamber)

The Chicago Tribune published a long editorial yesterday in which it came out strongly against capital punishment. This is particularly notable for a newspaper that has a long history of supporting the death penalty:

It has, as well, long been the position of this editorial page that the government should have the legal right to impose capital punishment–the death penalty.

An editorial in 1869 stated: “Imprisonment as a penalty for capital crime has lost all its preventative value.” A Tribune editorial in 1952 called the death penalty “the most powerful deterrent to other criminals.” In 1976 this page said, “The danger of executing an innocent person is often cited, but we think unjustifiably.”

That last sentence sounds chilling today, in light of evidence in recent years of scores of cases in which government has wrongfully convicted defendants and sentenced them to death. The evidence of recent years argues that it is necessary to curb the government’s power. It is time to abolish the death penalty.

The Trib cites several reasons for its change of heart. First, it is concerned about the unfair application of the Death Penalty. There is very little consistency about what is required in order for a person to be sentenced to death. Is it the number of people killed? The gruesomeness of or motivation for the crime? Suspiciously (but not surprisingly) the only commonality seems to be that people whose victims are White are much more likely to be put to death than people whose victims are Black or Latino:

– There is ample evidence that killers are far more likely to land on Death Row if their victims are white than if they are black or Hispanic.

You are 10 times more likely to get a death sentence in DuPage County than if you cross the border into Cook County.

The Trib is also – rightly – concerned about the lack of deterrent effect and the irreversible nature of the death penalty. There is plenty of proof, much of it dug up by the Trib itself, that innocent people have been executed.

The system is arbitrary, and the system just plain gets it wrong. In the three decades since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., more than 120 people have been released from Death Row after evidence was presented that undermined the case against them. In that time Illinois has executed 12 people–and freed 18 from Death Row.

But the editorial (again, rightly) takes it one step further: even when the jury does convict the right guy, the paper now opposes the death penalty at least in part because of the potential cruelty it can inflict.

Even when the government convicts the right person, it can horribly botch the punishment. In December, it took Florida authorities 34 minutes to end the life of Angel Nieves Diaz because a poorly trained executioner incorrectly inserted a needle into his arm. The blunder prompted then-Gov. Jeb Bush to halt executions until the state improved its lethal injection procedures.

For all these reasons, including the decreasing public support for the death penalty (as evidenced by both recent Supreme Court doctrine and public opinion polls), the paper urges Illinois, which already has a moratorium, to ban the death penalty altogether. When the moratorium was placed on the IL death penalty, reforms were put in place that were supposed to insure the fair application of this most harsh punishment. But the Trib is not satisfied that these new procedures will actually provide the necessary safeguards.

Little has been done to guard against situations in which witnesses to a murder mistakenly identify an innocent person as the suspect, the single greatest source of wrongful convictions. No mechanism exists in Illinois to review what went wrong in cases of wrongful convictions, or to ensure that the death penalty is evenly applied across geographic boundaries. Efforts to address mistakes or bad actors at forensic labs have gone nowhere. We don’t see the prospect that there are better fixes for these gaps. Meanwhile, the list of crimes eligible for the death penalty has been expanded.

When it acknowledged widespread problems in its system of capital punishment, Illinois prompted a nationwide soul-searching. Illinois can now lead the country by recognizing those errors will not be sufficiently addressed, that the state cannot have moral certainty that new injustices won’t be heaped atop old ones.

Even were the state to implement new procedures, the editorial pushes for the abolition of the death penalty. And I think that’s the right move. There’s no compromise here. No matter what courts and legislatures can do to make sure that people are vigorously defended, that witnesses make more accurate IDs, that there is some sort of consistency in application, the death penalty is just plain wrong.

It’s great to see a major newspaper admitting its mistakes and now getting it right. It only took them 200 years.

Hat-Tip: TalkLeft

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6 Comments so far
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yay for my home state!

Comment by maxwell

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Pingback by a bird and a bottle

this is by far the best prison news day we’ve had in a long time. in fact, i think it’s the only good prison news day we’ve had of late. to reitterate my last comment, it’s shameful that new york has re-instated the death penalty (under pataki). time to revoke it!

Comment by professorplum

also: a comment on the image.
i immediately assumed that it was a panoptic gaurd tower (among the last remaining panopticons in the US is in illinois’s stateville penitentiary). the idea – invented by bentham and theorized by foucault – is that the tower produced the impression of an all-seeing eye (pan-optic) so that the prisoners had to assume they were under surveillance all the time. (this, hundreds of years before video.)

compare the image above with this image:

uncanny, no?

Comment by professorplum

Hmm. That is uncanny. It makes a lot of sense though, no? I mean, executions are often viewed by the relatives of the victim (and other witnesses). The person executed feels the eyes of everyone on him, all around, and their disapproval, even in his dying moment. Though here he does not need to be viewed panoptically to impose control on himself — by the time he is in this chamber, he is strapped to a gurney.

Are there other parallels or thoughts you can share on the parallel?

Comment by bean

I personally think that the death penalty is WRONG. Everybody has the right to live – it’s part of nature. Nobody has the right to take away other people’s lives – even as a punishment. Executions are usually gruesome, and some of the inmates executed were actually innocent.

Comment by Bill




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