Why Court Decisions Involving Death Make Us Nervous

Twenty years ago, I was a fairly hard core death penalty proponent.  I never could muster up much respect for the life of someone who had themselves shown so little respect for life in committing the heinous crimes that incur the death penalty.

Over the years, I have not gained any additional respect for a killer's right to life, but I have had growing doubts about our ability to mete out this penalty fairly.  To some extent this is based on the accusations that certain groups are more likely to get the death penalty than other groups.  For example, its fairly clear that men committing heinous crimes are more likely to get the death penalty than women.  I am also mostly willing to accept the notion that blacks are more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime as whites -- I hesitate to fully embrace this conclusion only because the people making this case are the same people who play the race card on everything, from OJ's guilt to fan reaction to Sammy Sosa's corked bat, so it has an element of the boy crying wolf.

However, discrimination is not the main reason I no longer support the death penalty for anything but the most extreme cases (there is still a need for an ultimate penalty in certain cases - without it, people who have already earned life in prison might see nothing to lose in killing a policeman or prison guard).  I have come to believe that the death penalty impairs a person's right to appeal. 

Now, certainly people sentenced to the death penalty get many layers of appeal.  However, while these appeals may cover many years, at some point the convicted person is put to death, and any further appeals or introduction of new evidence is no longer possible.  A multi-decade vindication process is not without precedent, for a number of reasons:

  • Racial mores may have to change:  How many black men were put to death unfairly in the south up through the 1960's?  Yes, they got to have all their appeals, but their appeals all occurred in the same place and time-frame as their conviction.  Only a generation later, long after many were dead, could a legal system run by a society with a different outlook on blacks look at some of these cases in a new light.
  • Public hysteria may have to calm down:  Though none that I know were sentenced to the death penalty, look at how many teachers and day care workers were convicted in the child molestation panics of the 1980's, only to be release decades later after the hysteria had passed, and in some cases after the original ego-driven prosecutors had retired.  The Gerald Amirault case is a great example.
  • Technology may have to change:  A number of people who had exhausted nearly all their appeals prior to being put to death have been vindicated, sometimes many years after the fact, by new DNA testing technologies.

We all know that courts make mistakes, some of which take decades to fix.  What if we never had a chance to change the flawed Plessy vs. Ferguson decision?  Criminal cases are no different - mistakes and abuses happen.  In most cases, these can be fixed, even decades after the fact.  The wrongly accused, like Mr, Amirault, loses a piece of his life, but still has some left.  Once put to death, though, the wrongs can't be fixed.

The reason I think about all this today is because of the Terri Schiavo case.  I am at a loss as the the right thing to do is here, and am amazed that so many people on both sides are so certain they are right -- the facts in this case are just so messy.  I am willing to accept that the court in Florida has done their job in plowing through all this mess and making the best decision they could under the law, and I am not about to advocate setting some really bad constitutional precedents just to second-guess them.

However, I am left with the same worry that I think many Americans are in cases like this.  Courts do make mistakes, what if they are wrong here?  After next week, there will be no more chances to appeal.


  1. Mike:

    Good thoughtful post. I had not made the connection between the death penalty (on which my views almost exactly parallel your own) and the Schiavo case. I have my doubts about the veracity and reliability of some of the 'witnesses' and accounts of Terri's condition that I have heard, but your point about uncertainty is certainly well taken.

  2. dudley sharp:

    The REAL Death Penalty in the US: A Review
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters

    NOTE: Detailed review of any of the below topics, or others, is available upon request

    In this brief format, the reality of the death penalty in the United States, is presented, with the hope that the media, public policy makers and others will make a more responsible effort to present a balanced view on this sanction.

    Innocence Issues

    Death Penalty opponents have proclaimed that 118 inmates have been "released from death row with evidence of their innocence", in the US, since the modern death penalty era began, post Furman v Georgia (1972).

    That number is a fraud.

    Those opponents have intentionally included both the factually innocent (the "I truly had nothing to do with the murder" cases) and the legally innocent (the "I got off because of legal errors" cases), thereby fraudulently raising the "innocent" numbers.

    Death penalty opponents claim that 24 such innocence cases are in Florida. The Florida Commission on Capital Cases found that 4 of those 24 MIGHT be innocent -- an 83% error rate in death penalty opponents claims. If that error rate is consistent, nationally, that would indicate that 20 of the alleged 118 innocents MIGHT be actually innocent -- a 0.3% actual guilt error rate for the over 7500 sentenced to death since 1973. None were executed.

    It is often claimed that 23 innocents have been executed in the US since 1900.  Nonsense.  Even the authors of that "23 innocents executed" study proclaimed "We agree with our critics, we never proved those (23) executed to be innocent; we never claimed that we had."  While no one would claim that an innocent has never been executed, there is no proof of an innocent executed in the US, at least since 1900.

    No one disputes that innocents are found guilty, within all countries.  However, when scrutinizing death penalty opponents claims, we find that when reviewing the accuracy of verdicts and the post conviction thoroughness of discovering those actually innocent incarcerated, that the US death penalty process may be the most accurate criminal justice sanction in the world.  Under real world scenario, not executing murderers will always put many more innocents at risk, than will ever be put at risk of execution.

    NOTE: The Professor Liebman/Columbia U. report finding a 68% error rate in death penalty cases has many errors of its own. Please review  http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/Liebman/Liebman.htm

    Deterrence Issues

    Seven recent studies, all finding for deterrence.

    One study, specifically, found that moratoriums on the death penalty sacrificed innocent lives. All of the other studies confirm that conclusion.

    All the studies which have not found a deterrent effect of the death penalty have refused to say that it does not deter some.  The studies finding for deterrence state such.  Confusion arises when people think that a simple comparison of murder rates and executions, or the lack thereof, can tell the tale of deterrence.  It cannot. 

    Both high and low murder rates are found within death penalty and non death penalty jurisdictions, be it Singapore, South Africa, Sweden or Japan, or the US states of Michigan and Delaware.  Many factors are involved in such evaluations.  Reason and common sense tell us that it would be remarkable to find that the most severe criminal sanction -- execution -- deterred none.  No one is foolish enough to suggest that the potential for negative consequences does not deter the behavior of some.  Therefore, regardless of jurisdiction, having the death penalty will always be an added deterrent to murders, over and above any lesser punishments.

    Racial issues

    White murderers are twice as likely to be executed in the US as are black murderers and are executed, on average, 12 months more quickly than are black death row inmates.

    It is often stated that it is the race of the victim which decides who is prosecuted in death penalty cases.  Although blacks and whites make up about an equal number of murder victims, capital cases are 6 times more likely to involve white victim murders than black victim murders.  This, so the logic goes, is proof that the US only cares about white victims.

    Hardly.  Only capital murders, not all murders, are subject to a capital indictment.  Generally, a capital murder is limited to murders plus secondary aggravating factors, such as murders involving burglary, carjacking, rape, and additional murders, such as police murders, serial and multiple murders.  White victims are, overwhelmingly, the victims under those circumstances, in ratios nearly identical to the cases found on death row.

    Any other racial combinations of defendants and/or their victims in death penalty cases, is a reflection of the crimes committed and not any racial bias within the system, as confirmed by studies from the Rand Corporation (1991), Smith College (1994), U of Maryland (2002), New Jersey Supreme Court (2003) and by a view of criminal justice statistics, within a framework of the secondary aggravating factors necessary for capital indictments.

    Class issues

    No one disputes that wealthier defendants can hire better lawyers and, therefore, should have a legal advantage over their poorer counterparts.  The US has executed about 0.15% of all murderers since new death penalty statutes were enacted in 1973.  There is no evidence that wealthier capital murderers are less likely to be executed than their poorer ilk, based upon the proportion of capital murders committed by wealthier criminals. 

    Arbitrary and capricious

    About 10% of all murders within the US might qualify for a death penalty eligible trial.  That would be about 55,000 murders since 1973.  We have sentenced 7,300 murderers to death since then, or 14% of those eligible.  I doubt that there is any other crime which receives a higher percentage of maximum sentences, when mandatory sentences are not available.  Based upon that, as well as pre trial, trial, appellate and clemency/commutation realities, the US death penalty is likely the least arbitrary and capricious criminal sanctions in the world. 

    Christianity and the death penalty

    The two most authoritative New Testament scholars, Saints Augustine and Aquinas, provide substantial biblical and theological support for the death penalty. Even the most well known anti death penalty personality in the US, Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, states that "It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical 'proof text' in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this.  Even Jesus' admonition 'Let him without sin cast the first stone,' when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) -- the Mosaic Law prescribed death -- should be read in its proper context.  This passage is an 'entrapment' story, which sought to show Jesus' wisdom in besting His adversaries.  It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment."  A thorough review of Pope John Paul II's current position, reflects a reasoning that should be recommending more executions.

     Cost Issues

    All studies finding the death penalty to be more expensive than life without parole exclude important factors, such as (1) geriatric care costs, recently found to be $69,0000/yr/inmate, (2) the death penalty cost benefit of providing for plea bargains to a maximum life sentence, a huge cost savings to the state, (3) the death penalty cost benefit of both enhanced deterrence and enhanced incapacitation, at $5 million per innocent life spared, and, furthermore, (4) many of the alleged cost comparison studies are highly deceptive.

    Polling data

    74% of Americans support the death penalty, generally. 53% say the death penalty is not used enough. Catholics show 70% support. (Gallup 5/05). Support was 74% in 2003, as well (Gallup 5/03). This support is within the margin of error of the all time high for general support -- 80% (Gallup, 1994)

    Support is actually higher. 81% of the American people supported the execution of Timothy McVeigh, with only 16% opposed. (Gallup 5/2/01). "(T)his view appears to be the consensus of all major groups in society, including men, women, whites, nonwhites, "liberals" and "conservatives." "81% of Connecticut citizens supported the execution of serial rapist/murderer Michael Ross (Jan 2005).

    While 81% gave specfic case support for Timothy McVeigh's execution, Gallup also showed a 65% support when asked a general "do you support capital punishment for murderers" question. (Gallup, 6/10/01).

    That wide 16% "error rate", between general support and specific case support, is likely due to the differences in (1) the widespread coverage of anti death penalty claims ,without the balance of contradicting those false claims, producing 65% general support, and (2) the absence of that influence when looking at individual cases when the public knows the crimes, the guilt of the murderer, and absent the anti death penalty bias factor, producing 81% specific case support.

    22% of those supporting McVeigh's execution are, generally, against the death penalty (Gallup 5/02/01). In fact, they are not opposed to the death penalty, but favor it under specific circumstances, just as it is imposed, judicially. This provides firm evidence that death penalty support is much wider and deeper than expressed with the general death penalty polling question.

    Whatever your feelings are toward the death penalty, a fair accounting of how it is applied should be demanded.

    copyright 1998-2005 Dudley Sharp
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
    e-mail  sharpjfa@aol.com,  713-622-5491,
    Houston, Texas
    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS, BBC and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Report, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
    A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
    Pro death penalty sites
    http://www.yesdeathpenalty.com/ (Sweden)

    My focus has been on violent crime issues and what can be done, within the criminal justice and legislative systems, to lessen injury to the innocent and to prosecute the guilty.  To accomplish that goal, involvement in community education, elections, legislation, victim's rights issues, including assistance in individual cases are all important.