Despite growing doubts about the propriety of capital punishment, seven of every 10 Americans still support it. But even if the support were much higher, it would still be difficult to justify the death penalty, in theory and in practice.
Capital punishment serves no useful purpose. It is cruel, vindictive and inequitable. It assigns to the condemned a level of rationality they do not possess. It is final and irreversible. The society that administers it sinks to the level of the condemned killer when it should rise splendidly above it.
The support for capital punishment rests principally on the claim that it serves as a deterrent. Knowing that they stand to pay with their own lives if found guilty of murder, it is claimed, only those possessed by a death wish would kill. Without such a deterrent, it is claimed, the homicide rate would escalate.
If this claim holds true, the homicide rates in the major industrial countries that have abolished capital punishment should have risen sharply. So should the volume of capital crimes in those American states that do not practice capital punishment or employ it sparingly. But this has not been the case.
To take a domestic example, the homicide rate in Pennsylvania has remained roughly 6 in 100,000 despite the fact that Pennsylvania has carried out no execution since 1976. On the other hand, from 1977 to 1995, the homicide rate in Texas has stood at 13.3 per 100,000. Nor has the fervor with which Texas has been administering the death penalty under Gov. George W. Bush's watch led to a significant decline in the homicide rate.
The death penalty, then, is no deterrent. It deters only those who have been executed, for they will never kill again. But the same end can be secured with far less damage to the social psyche by keeping convicted killers in jail for life, without the possibility of parole.
Every murder, including one planned to the most chilling detail and carried out with utmost deliberation, psychiatrists maintain, results basically from an abnormal condition that may be biological or environmental or both.
Thus, when society executes a capital offender, it is at once condemning the offender for conduct that may have been biologically determined, and absolving itself of any responsibility in creating or sustaining the environmental forces that shaped the convict.
Most homicides do not result from cold, brutal calculation. They result, criminologists say, from confusion, anger, stress and panic -- in short, from a loss of capacity for rational judgment. The death penalty merely compounds the tragedy that flows from such lapses of judgment, to which even the most sober persons are susceptible.
Capital punishment is not the blunt instrument of justice it is claimed to be. It is stacked against the poor, who are more often than not members of racial minorities. Racial stereotyping and profiling work to ensure that minorities are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted. The poor, lacking the resources to hire competent attorneys and forensic experts, are more likely than better-endowed persons to be convicted. To the poor and disconnected, "equality before the law" is not an actuality.
Perhaps the strongest argument against capital punishment is its finality. Once carried out, the sentence cannot be reversed even if it turns out that the victim was innocent or his guilt not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Gov. Bush claims that due process has been followed scrupulously in each of the 132 executions he has approved since taking office, and that nary a miscarriage of justice has occurred. No scientist would claim such a record of perfection even for laboratory experiments.
The claim is in any case seriously vitiated by the finding in Illinois that 13 of 18 persons on death row had been convicted wrongly. Even more damaging to Bush's claim is the conclusion of a massive study of capital convictions and appeals between 1975 and 1995, conducted by James Liebman of Columbia University Law School. The study covered 5,500 judicial decisions.
In 68 percent of 4,576 cases they reviewed, the appellate courts found "serious, reversible error." This means that roughly 7 of every 10 convictions did not pass close judicial scrutiny. "American capital sentences," Liebman concluded, "are so persistently and systematically fraught with error that it seriously undermines their reliability."
Supporters of capital punishment have drawn a different conclusion from the study, namely, that the judicial system works so well that wrongful convictions are the rare exceptions. Even so, Liebman's study and the discoveries in Illinois that some innocent persons had been languishing on death row ought to make Gov. Bush less dogmatic in his claim that every person executed in Texas under his watch fully deserved to die.
If Bush will not follow Illinois Gov. George Ryan to place a moratorium on executions in Texas, he should at least recognize that even the most scrupulous judicial proceeding may be tainted by errors resulting perhaps not so much from the perversity of officials as from human fallibility.
The possibility that capital punishment may be administered in error -- that possibility alone, however remote -- ought to weigh decisively on the minds of supporters of capital punishment.
Those who kill should be held to account. When society puts them to death rather than sentence them to life imprisonment without parole, it sinks to their level of pathology instead of rising splendidly above it.
Among the nations that claim adherence to civilized values, the United States is the only one that has not abolished capital punishment. Politicians focused on winning the next election may reason that they cannot ignore the strong public support the death penalty still enjoys in America.
But the matter is too fundamental to be governed by the shifting sands of public opinion. When politicians pander to the polls -- as they have been doing on the death penalty -- they repudiate the obligations of leadership and become mere camp followers.
Olatunji Dare, an associate professor of journalism at Bradley University, Peoria, Ill., is an American Society of Newspaper Editors fellow at The Seattle Times.
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