On Protecting The Innocent, Or, Is There A Death Penalty Compromise?

I don’t feel very good about this country this morning, and as so many of us are I’m thinking of how Troy Davis was hustled off this mortal coil by the State of Georgia without a lot of thought of what it means to execute the innocent.

And given the choice, I’d rather see us abandon the death penalty altogether, for reasons that must, at this moment, seem self-evident; that said, it’s my suspicion that a lot of states are not going to be in any hurry to abandon their death penalties anytime soon now that they know the Supreme Court will allow the innocent to be murdered.

So what if there was a way to create a compromise that balanced the absolute need to protect the innocent with the feeling among many Americans that, for some crimes, we absolutely have to impose the death penalty?

Considering the circumstances, it’s not going to be an easy subject, but let’s give it a try, and see what we can do.

Let’s Fix An Error Dept.: Apologies are in order, because in our last story we identified The Riverside Church in Manhattan as the place where George Carlin learned to be Catholic – and that could not have been more incorrect.  Bad research was the culprit here, and it’s something that we’ll obviously be working to improve. So, once again: sorry, and my bad.

Now if all the states want to limit the imposition of the death penalty to just the guilty (and after what we just saw in Georgia, that’s no longer 100% certain), one way you could do it would be to make it a lot harder to prove guilt – and that’s what we have in mind for today’s proposal.

As you may recall, we convict today with a “burden of proof” that is described as “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”; as we now know, it is possible to prove guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, even when there’s a whole lot of reasonable doubt to be found.

In Davis’ case, he was given a chance on appeal to prove his innocence, and despite this conclusion from the Judge hearing the case…

“Ultimately, while Mr. Davis’s new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors…”

…Davis was still executed.

So the way I would get at this problem would be to change the burden of proof in these cases: if you want to execute someone who is facing an aggravated murder or other capital charge, instead of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”, I would require “guilt beyond all doubt”.

If you can’t get to guilt beyond all doubt, but you can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then you could impose no sentence harsher than life without parole.

If this proposal had been in effect in Davis’ case, there could have been no execution after he argued that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel, because that would have erased “all doubt”; after that he would have had the rest of his life to demonstrate that he was wrongly convicted.

There are going to be a few reasons people might not like this proposal, and I’ll try to address some of them briefly:

Right off the bat, many will complain that because of the new burden of proof it will be virtually impossible to have executions at all; I would tell those folks that if that were to occur…then the system is working. The entire purpose of this plan is to make executions an extraordinarily rare occurrence and to move just about everyone on Death Rows nationwide to a “life without parole” future.

Beyond that, many will say that capital punishment is morally unacceptable under any circumstances, and to those folks I would respond that y’all make a pretty good point…but at the moment there are a lot of Americans who do not hold that moral position – and they have strong feelings too – and unless we can move them to a different point of view, then the best chance we have to prevent the innocent from being executed is to find some sort of compromise like this one.

(Don’t believe me about that “strong feelings” thing? How many of the readers here would be OK with the death penalty for Osama Bin Laden, if he were proved “beyond all doubt” to have been the person behind 9/11?)

A similar line of thought is expressed in the idea that we are seeing more and more voters who do oppose capital punishment, and with a bit of patience, this problem will go away.

After what happened to Troy Davis, I think there’s more urgency now than there was in times past, and that’s because we now see that at least one State will quickly kill a prisoner in order to “clear the case”, suggesting to me that patience is not as good an option as it was before.

Finally, I suspect many will feel that the effort to pass a proposal like this one would distract from the effort to end the death penalty, which is, again, a pretty good argument.

To those folks I would respond that we may get some states to end the death penalty today, but there are a lot of other states that are not going to want to give up the death penalty for some time to come (remember the people who cheered Rick Perry’s execution record?), and if we aren’t going to be able to end the death penalty completely, then I think we have to offer some sort of compromise; a compromise based on the concepts of “killing the innocent isn’t The American Way” or “you could still execute Osama” could appeal to voters who simply won’t give up on the death penalty altogether.

So that’s what we have for you today: even though I personally would prefer that we end the death penalty and just go to life without parole for all these crimes, I don’t think we’re going to achieve that in a lot of states; with that in mind I’m proposing a compromise that would protect the innocent by ending virtually all executions, even as it allows an extraordinarily difficult to reach exception that could satisfy those who absolutely do not want to see the application of the death penalty come to an end.

It’s an imperfect compromise, I’ll admit – but in a big ol’ swath of America that runs from roughly Florida to Idaho, it may be the best compromise we can make right now, and right now, in those places, that might have to be good enough.

Entirely Off The Subject Dept.: We are still trying to get signatures for the petition to change the name of Manhattan’s W 121st St (one block from Seminary Row) to George Carlin Street, and we need your help; you can sign right here. The goal is to reach 10,000 signatures by Monday, so…get to it.

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The Death Penalty Doesn’t Work, Costs Billions

Yesterday dozens of citizens descended upon our State Capitol to lobby for a moratorium on the death penalty.  We visited our State Senators and Representatives to urge them to consider the tragic consequences of executing innocent people.  We know that innocent people have been executed because we know 139 death row inmates have been exonerated through DNA.  In Pennsylvania only three prisoners have been executed in 48 years and all were because they dropped their appeals and asked to be killed.  In that time six inmates have been exonerated.

The death penalty doesn’t work.  It provides no deterrent or we’d see lower murder rates where it is most widely applied:  Texas and Oklahoma.  Prosecuting and imprisoning someone for capital murder costs billions of dollars to Pennsylvania taxpayers in an era where state budget cuts are severely impacting services.  Thousands of state employees are being terminated and programs cut while we continue spending billions on our prison system.  Mandatory sentences are driving taxes sky high for no logical, sane reason and the death penalty is leading those expenses.

Ray Krone spoke about his experience being arrested, tried, convicted and sent to death row by mistake.  He was finally cleared but how many other innocent people were railroaded by a system which doesn’t afford equal representation.  There aren’t any rich people on death row.  The OJ Simpsons of the world can afford to hire expert lawyers who can challenge false evidence, shoddy police work and lying witnesses.  (Not that I’m saying OJ was innocent, he’s simply an example of how the rich can afford the best attorneys).

The justice system is broken and if it happened to Ray Krone it can happen to you.  We had a family member murdered.  It is a horribly tragic thing to affect a family.  Walter Everett spoke about the impact on him when his son Scott was murdered and how forgiving healed him and helped him get past the anger.  Families of murder victims are falsely told they can get closure after an execution.  There is no closure for the family survivors of homicide.  Taking yet another life doesn’t provide any comfort and they waste years of healing consumed by their anger and rage.

If you are of the Judeo-Christian faith you’re familiar with the credo of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  I don’t see anything in there but eyes and teeth, nothing about life.  In fact the Bible does say “thou shalt not kill.”  No asterisks, no footnotes, no exceptions.

The rest of the video:

Supremes Limit Death Penalty

The Supreme Court ruled today that rape, even of children, is not justification for the death penalty.  The Court has consistently defined the limit for the death penalty to murder.  Six states currently allow capital punishment for child rape.  Advocates against this argue the law provides an incentive for child rapists to kill their victims so to eliminate the witness.  This certainly is a bad outcome and seems logical.

Update:  Barack Obama announced today he opposes this decision and supports the death penalty in such crimes.  On top of last week’s support for the FISA bill I’m glad I haven’t endorsed this man.