Why I am against the death penalty.

I wanted this blog to be light-hearted, writing about things in my life in a positive (and perhaps a little humorous) way. But it just doesn’t seem to be happening. So I’m not going to worry about it and just write about what I want to write about.

Like the death penalty.

A heavy topic, to be sure, but I’ve never been sure what to think of the death penalty. Until now.

Recently, in Knoxville, several trials are under way for four individuals who kidnapped, raped and murdered a couple out on a date. I read the reports of the conditions of the bodies. I’ll spare the details, but what those two poor kids suffered was horrendous.

The first man on trial for the murders was found guilty, but the jury returned a life without parole sentence, rather than the death penalty, which the families of the victims wanted. I’ve never lost a loved one to murder, but I now know that I can never be for the death penalty either. I don’t think killing someone who took someone else’s life is the answer. It’s sure proven not to be a deterrent.

What brought me to this conclusion was a story I read on The New Yorker’s Web site this morning, “Trial By Fire.”

It tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was convicted and sentenced to die for setting fire to his house while his three young daughters slept inside. He refused to plead guilty to the crime, which would spare him the death penalty. He was executed by the state of Texas in 2004, maintaining his innocence right up until the end.

And, as it now turns out, he was telling the truth.

New evidence shows the fire was an accident. Willingham didn’t murder his daughters, but the state murdered him. And this is why I am against the death penalty. It has been said that it is better than ten guilty persons escape than one innocent be convicted. And I agree. I believe it is better that all those found guilty of murder be sentenced to life without parole than one innocent person be put to death for a crime he did not commit.

To me, a life without parole sentence is a death sentence. They’ll never have a normal life, but rather one behind sterile walls, fences and barbed wire. It costs much less to house one inmate for life than it does to put them to death. And our justice system is far from perfect. From the story:

The modern legal system, with its lengthy appeals process and clemency boards, was widely assumed to protect the kind of “error of justice” that Mill feared. In 2000, while George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he said, “I know there are some in the country who don’t care for the death penalty, but . . . we’ve adequately answered innocence or guilt.” His top policy adviser on issues of criminal justice emphasized that there is “super due process to make sure that no innocent defendants are executed.”

In recent years, though, questions have mounted over whether the system is fail-safe. Since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated. DNA testing, which was developed in the eighties, saved seventeen of them, but the technique can be used only in rare instances. Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate prisoners, estimates that about eighty per cent of felonies do not involve biological evidence.

In 2000, after thirteen people on death row in Illinois were exonerated, George Ryan, who was then governor of the state, suspended the death penalty. Though he had been a longtime advocate of capital punishment, he declared that he could no longer support a system that has “come so close to the ultimate nightmare—the state’s taking of innocent life.” Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.”

I cannot imagine what Willingham went through during this nightmare of an ordeal. First to lose his children, then to lose his own life because of inept investigating and the desire for a quick conviction. Please read the entire story. It’s 17 pages long, but I believe we owe it to Mr. Willingham to read his story, so that perhaps it might never happen again.

After all, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

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