Monday, November 29, 2004

Retreat from Capital Punishment…

It should come as no surprise that advocates for condemned murderers respond to “red herrings” offered by the Associated Press that reference downward trends in the number of killers sentenced to death. The gross numbers by themselves don’t mean much. The missing part of the story is the reduction in the total number of truly capital crimes or those that lead up to such things. For instance, consider some other violent crimes that are often the precursors to aggravated murder (i.e. rape robbery). It’s not “new news” that violent crime in general is on a downward trend. So it might also be reasonable to expect that capital murders would also decline in number.

If fewer persons are sentenced to death there might also some reasonable explanations that death penaly foes or defense attorneys (some say these persons are the same) don't acknowledge.

How about prosecutorial discretion? Consider cases where the closest relatives of a victim don’t want to pursue an execution (many murder cases involve other immediate family members), or they (relatives of victims) don’t want to bear the burden of a prolonged appellate process.

Why find fault in a reduced number of capital sentences? If for the sake of argument, jurists have “raised the bar” in terms of what they are willing to consider to be “reasonable evidence” when they decide on guilt or recommend a death sentence today, then that doesn’t mean that decisions made using a lower standard of proof are necessarily wrong. Trial lawyers aren't prevented from demanding clemency for condemned inmates in cases where known technologies or increased standards of proof (i.e. use of DNA or other forensic evidence/technologies) might prove possible innocence. Laws already require that such evidence be processed where it might free a convicted murderer. These increased burdens on prosecutors to prove a case should represent at least some comfort to persons who question guilt in individual cases.

So yes, the option of using some “prosecutorial discretion” might encourage some prosecutors to try fewer cases capitally. This often occurs where the evidence establishes guilt but does not justify an execution in some strong way. Since when is a decision based on efficacy, also biased or unfair? Isn’t this also a more efficient use of our courts and jurists?

The bottom line on statistics is that, they "might mean more to us" if all murders were committed in the same manner, by the same kinds of offenders and the victims were all equal in every respect, but this is not so. Not all cases are equally strong in terms of proving the heinousness of the crime or their motivations. Each murderer represents a unique risk to themself and to others persons (or inmates and corrections staff). Imprisonment means something different for each convicted murderer. Each crime is in fact unique. This is why juries make the decisions when it is time to consider an occasional (but deserved) death sentence. In the end, the statistics are just statistics.

So if polls show no appreciable changes regarding the overall support for capital punishment, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. If Americans continue to support the concept of capital punishment yet recommend the execution of fewer murderers, this should not be cause for concern either. Especially, if Americans are being more careful in recommending just who, gets executed.

Yes, occasional wrongful convictions should make us all more careful and demanding when it comes to meting out death sentences. Few persons acknowledge the fact that in the majority of cases where a supposedly wrongfully convicted murderer was released, that strong evidence indicating guilt usually still exists. This is a far cry from the “actual innocence” standard that death penalty foes would encourage persons to believe when a rare case is retried, or results in a acquittal, gets reversed, remanded or an error is found. If anything this proves how reluctant the courts are to follow up with an execution when a case against a condemned murderer is in fact, a weak one.

Concluding that the results of local elections reflect a change how the public views capital punishment would be short sighted too. America just re-elected an ex-Texas Governor to the presidency. He is a man with a strong background indicating support for capital punishment, in case no one noticed.

If some of us seem to take occasional (and public) joy in a death sentence that should be discouraged. Death sentences mean that the system has failed a victim by preventing a brutal murder. Make no mistake about it; murderers on death row are not to be confused with being victims. “Premeditated or 1st degree murder” means they had choices and did wrong. It's also worth mentioning that the effectiveness of counsel is considered for every condemned murderer as a part of normal procedure not happenstance.

If evidence is wrongfully withheld it should be considered in our courts. If an occasional or rare case demonstrates that these things have happened in the past, it also demonstrates that the courts threw the verdicts out when the circumstances called for it. The appellate process is there to root out all such errors and validate prior decisions in the courts. Yet some only find fault in the process when it actually works.

Death penalty foes even find fault in our leaders when they occasionally commute or overrule a death sentence. North Carolina’s Governor has commuted two condemned murderers sentences to life without parole. This demonstrates that compassion and leniency can be argued for on his watch. If lawyers are going to find fault with individual decisions the Governnor has made they had better substantiate such things with evidence, testimony, logic and facts, not supposition or statistics (or other weak arguments and whining).

So legislatively speaking, if the polls indicate that North Carolinians still overwhelmingly support capital punishment and from an evidentiary standpoint, we know that all of the murderers who have been executed were in fact guilty, why should we seek a moratorium on executions? Certainly not just because many advocates for death row inmates object to all executions! It makes no matter to them how heinous the crime or dangerous the murderer. Many of those who advocate for condemned murderers have a primary obligation to their clients and/or are paid to object to executions. So, when these persons voice their objections to the occasional and deserved execution we should consider just whom (or what) they are advocating for. Shouldn't we?!