Thursday, November 01, 2007

Atwood: Capital punishment is unnecessary

Here is David Atwood's column in yesterday's Austin American Statesman.

Murder is a horrible thing. The pain and suffering experienced by the victim and his/her family and friends are beyond description. However, is capital punishment the proper response of a civilized society to this horrible crime?

The current debate about capital punishment is whether lethal injection is "cruel and unusual punishment" and, therefore, unconstitutional. No one knows how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on this issue. Although we are aware that several executions using lethal injection have been botched over the years, we have not had anyone return from the dead to tell us what he experienced during the execution.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was unconstitutional in the 1970s, it was because it was being applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Most objective legal scholars would admit that capital punishment is still being applied in an arbritrary and capricious manner despite improvements to the death penalty system in the 1970s. In 1994, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun acknowledged this fact and stated "I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death".

My personal experience with the death penalty is that it is "cruel and unusual punishment" from many perspectives. First, it inflicts unbelievable mental anguish on the criminal, as well as his family and friends who are innocent of the crime. I have observed this pain and anguish many times when I have visited prisoners on death row, attended execution vigils and actually witnessed executions. Some may argue that the suffering of the offender is nothing compared to what he did to his victim. However, should we as a civilized society take human life and create more victims when it is totally unnecessary? What sort of an example does this set for our children and for the rest of the world?

Secondly, the inconsistency with which the death penalty is applied in the United States is phenomenal. There are not only huge inconsistencies between states, but also within states because the attitudes, abilities and resources of the district attorneys vary significantly between counties. In some counties with unlimited financial resources such as Harris County, Texas, the district attorney will go for the death penalty at every opportunity. In rural counties, the district attorney will often choose an alternative punishment because of the high cost of trying a capital case.

Thirdly, we have plenty of evidence that the criminal justice system is a human system. Mistakes have been made and innocent people have been sent to death row. Over 120 people have been exonerated and released from death row in the United States in recent years. Several of these were in Texas. And there is evidence that innocent people have been executed. If you execute an innocent person, there is no way to correct the error. Sending an innocent person to death row is certainly "cruel and unusual punishment".

When Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis in 1999, he publicly stated that the death penalty was "cruel and unnecessary". It is cruel for the obvious reasons. It is also unnecessary since we can protect society by long-term incarceration of a dangerous criminal. Many states, including Texas, have life without parole as an optional punishment for capital murder. As a civilized society, we no longer have to take human life.

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