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The Case Against Capital Punishment

The Case Against Capital Punishment John H. Whitehead Professor Roth Whitehead 1 A Moratorium on The Death Penalty Should Be Enacted In Illinois Due to the recent releases of newly exonerated Death Row inmates, individuals and organizations are calling for a moratorium- a cooling off period for state executions. The cases of just a few inmates makes it apparent that this would be a necessary step to save innocent lives. After 17 years in prison, Illinois Death Row inmate Anthony Porter was released from jail after a judge threw out his murder conviction following the introduction of new evidence. This reversal of fortune came just two days before Porter was to be executed. As reported in USA Today, Porter’s release was the result of investigative research as conducted by a Northwestern University professor and students.

The evidence gathered suggested that Porter had been wrongly convicted. Were these new revelations and the subsequent release of Porter a lucky break or a freak occurrence? Not likely, reports DeWayne Wickham, also of USA Today. He points out that since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States in 1976, of those sentenced to death, 490 people have been executed while 76 have been freed from Death Row. This calculates into one innocent person being released from Death Row for every six individuals that were executed. This figure correlates with the 1996 U.S. Department of Justice report that indicates that over a 7-year period, beginning in 1989, when DNA evidence in various cases was tested, 26% of primary suspects were exonerated.

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This has led some to conclude that a similar percentage of inmates presently serving time behind bars may have been wrongly convicted prior to the advent of forensic DNA typing. Whitehead 2 Amnesty International, in its 1998 report Fatal Flaws: Innocence and the Death Penalty, supports the American Bar Association’s call for a death penalty moratorium. Michelle Stevens, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, reported that in 1998 Illinois State Representative Coy Pugh (D-Chicago) introduced a resolution calling for a bi-partisan panel to study the death penalty in Illinois. During the study all executions would be postponed. This proposal was initially killed but revived following the recent releases.

Yet, this call for a moratorium on the death penalty is not the first time that state executions have been opposed. Throughout its history capital punishment has been opposed on many premises. In discussion forums across the world many individuals often cite deterrence of crime as a viable defense of capital punishment. However, comprehensive studies, including the 1994 FBI Uniform crime Report, indicate that capital punishment does not serve as a deterrent to crime. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the death penalty not only does not deter crime- among states that have either abolished or instituted the death penalty crime and murder rates have remained unchanged. Additionally, Eric Pooley of Time magazine, in his research, reports that no proof exists to substantiate claims that capital punishment discourages crime by anyone other than the criminals whom are executed. Glenn Lammi, of the Washington Legal Foundation is quoted as saying that there are no convincing studies [connecting] the death penalty and the crime rate.

Whitehead 3 In the absence of persuasive studies linking capital punishment and crime rates, who better to turn to than the individuals who walk the thin blue line- law enforcement officials may be better equipped to address this subject. Time magazine reports that 67% of polled police chiefs also did not believe that the death penalty deters [crime such as] homicide. According to a 1994 Government Accounting Office report (GAO) substantial evidence indicates that courts have been unfair in death sentencing. The 1990 GAO report, summarizing numerous capital punishment studies, confirmed a consistent pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty. The GAO also revealed that those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to Death Row than those who murdered blacks.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) nearly 40% of those executed since 1976 have been black although blacks only comprise 12% of the U.S. population. And in just about every death penalty case, the race of the victim was white. The DPIC goes on to report that in the previous year, 89% of the death sentences involved victims whom were white. U.S News and World Report writer Ted Gest reinforces his concept. He writes that on Death Row race really does matter.

He points out that on Death Row whites and minorities are represented roughly equally. The disparity in allocation of the death penalty preempted the American Bar Association, in it’s 1997 article The Task Ahead; Reconciling Justice with Politics, to call for jurisdictions that exercise capital punishment to refrain from its use until fairness Whitehead 4 and due process could be assured. The ABA further called for the examination of procedures and practices for each state. State and federal justices have also spoken out against capital punishment according to Jack Callahan of the Rochester Institute of Technology. To point out an instance, Callahan cites U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun as declaring that he henceforth opposes the death penalty on the bases of the failure of the death penalty experiment. Blackmun, is further cited to state that the [potential] execution of an innocent individual comes perilously to simple murder. Justice Clarence Thomas is cited as having stated that the possibility of perjured testimonymistaken testimony and human error remain all to real.

We have no way of judging how many innocent people have been executed but we can be certain that there were some. The United Nations, during an April 3rd 1997 press briefing, announced that its Commission on Human Rights had voted overwhelmingly to abolish the death penalty. The resolution called on member states that still maintained the death penalty to restrict the number of offenses for which the death penalty could be imposed and to consider abolishing executions completely. This opposition to the death penalty intertwined with new revelations all highlights the fact that innocent people are being wrongly sent to Death Row. I had, said he, come to an entirely erroneous conclusion which allow, my dear Watson, how dangerous is always is to reason from insufficient data.’ Said Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of the Speckled Band.

Whitehead 5 Since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States, 490 people have been executed while 76 have been freed from Death Row, DeWayne Wickham of USA Today points out. The Death Penalty Information Center’s 1997 report on Innocence and the Death Penalty attributes these releases to scientific advancements such as DNA testing and journalistic investigations. Numerous factors such as overzealous prosecutors, deliberate actions of police, inadequate counsel, convictions based solely upon questionable eyewitness reports, laboratory error and unreliable evidence have all resulted in innocent individuals being sent to Death Row. This strengthens the call for a death penalty moratorium in Illinois. Inadequate counsel is a major contributing factor that has landed the innocent on Death Row, according to Ted Gest of the US News and World Report.

According to Gest courts in southern states, the location of most American executions, are only able to find poorly paid lawyers for many defendants. Attorneys diligent enough to input 500-1000 hours in a death penalty case must often work [well] below minimum wage. According to Amnesty International, the average salary of court appointed lawyers was $11.70 per hour. The 1996 National Institute of Justice also cites inadequate counsel, specifically in failing to consult competent scientific experts, as a contributing factor to the dilemma of individuals being false sentenced to Death Row. Whitehead 6 According to the National Institute of Justice, prior to the advent of DNA typing courts were forced to rely on less reliable types of evidence such as blood typing and eyewitness accounts.

Blood typing, it is reported by the National Institute of Justice, has oftentimes yielded completely erroneous results. This logically indicates the possibility that individuals may have been erroneously convicted based upon this evidence. According to the National Institute of Justice 1996 report, courts relying solely upon eyewitness accounts wrongly convicted individuals in 28 documented cases. DNA evidence later cleared these individuals. In this report, Supreme Court Justice Brennen in the United States vs. Wade, 12 was quoted as saying that The vagaries of eyewitness identification are well known; the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identification.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a noted critic of the reliability of eyewitness testimony noted that witnesses are susceptible to intentional or unintentional suggestions from police. She explains that there is pressure on the part of witnesses to see the crime solved. This susceptibility may contribute to false eyewitness identifications. In assessing physical evidence, the National Institute of Justice indicated that the common practice of blood typing, as the primary source of indicating guilt, is faulty in its unreliability. The deterioratio …


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