Kilroy Was Here
December 31, 2002
Death to Capital Punishment
In this week's New Yorker, Scott Turrow writes a telling article on his experience as a member of Illinois's commission to recommend reform of that state's capital punishment system. Turrow, a former, US Attorney and bestselling author provides archetypical annecdotes surrounding capital punishment cases, from the conviction of the innocent to the random disproportion of punishment to the fears from super-criminals. Ultimately, however, Turrow comes down in opposition to capital punishment.

Here are the two of the more interesting points from the article:

Capital punishment is supposed to be applied only to the most heinous crimes, but it is precisely those cases which, because of the strong feelings of repugnance they evoke, most thoroughly challenge the detached judgment of all participants in the legal process—police, prosecutors, judges, and juries. The innocent are often particularly at risk. Most defendants charged with capital crimes avoid the death penalty by reaching a plea bargain, a process that someone who is innocent is naturally reluctant to submit to. Innocent people tend to insist on a trial, and when they get it the jury does not include anyone who will refuse on principle to impose a death sentence. Such people are barred from juries in capital cases by a Supreme Court decision, Witherspoon v. Illinois, that, some scholars believe, makes the juries more conviction-prone.

I admit that I am still attracted to a death penalty that would be applied to horrendous crimes, or that would provide absolute certainty that the likes of Henry Brisbon would never again satisfy their cruel appetites. But if death is available as a punishment, the furious heat of grief and rage that these crimes inspire will inevitably short-circuit any capital system. Now and then, we will execute someone who is innocent, while the fundamental equality of each survivor's loss creates an inevitable emotional momentum to expand the categories for death-penalty eligibility.

One feeling you get from reading Turrow's article is the variability and capriciousness of our Justice System. Similar crimes don't mete similar punishments. Eyewitnesses are confused, manipulated, and mistaken. Jailhouse informants lie. Even fingerprints are no assurance.

How many innocents are sacrifices to the altar of our own deceptions of justice? How many should we tolerate?

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