WASHINGTON - Three established U.S. newspapers, two of them among the 10 largest in the country, in three different states have in the past weeks abandoned their century-old support of the death penalty and become passionate advocates of a ban on state-sponsored killing.
The newspapers -- the Chicago Tribune in Illinois, the smaller Sentinel in Pennsylvania and the Dallas Morning News in Texas -- announced their change of heart in strongly-argued editorials following a series of investigative articles highlighting the flaws in the death penalty system in their states and country.
"I think in a word it's the issue of innocence that has brought about these editorials," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told IPS. "The weight of evidence in death penalty cases as seen and confirmed in DNA testing has made the death penalty too risky."
The Chicago Tribune said its "groundbreaking" reporting suggested that innocent people had been convicted and executed. Two cases in Texas were cited. Also over the last 30 years more than 130 people had been released from death row in the U.S. after evidence was presented that undermined the cases against them. In that time, Illinois had executed 12 people and freed 18 from death row.
"The evidence of mistakes, the evidence of arbitrary decisions, the sobering knowledge that governments can't provide certainty that the innocent will not be put to death -- all that prompts this call for an end to capital punishment. It is time to stop killing people in the people's name," the Chicago Tribune wrote, reversing its pro-capital punishment position held since 1869.
Pennsylvania's Sentinel newspaper, founded in 1861, also came out editorially against capital punishment after its reporters highlighted the "ineffectiveness" of the death penalty system in the state.
"The death penalty is useless," the newspaper wrote in its Apr. 3 editorial.
The state's lengthy appeals process created an almost indefinite stay of execution. This meant the numbers on Pennsylvania's death row were steadily increasing. There were now 221 on death row, the fourth largest number of any state in the country. This was a huge expense for the taxpayers, the newspaper wrote.
"We are left with a grueling process that in the end only guarantees more suffering for the victims' families and society at large as faith in the justice system erodes," the editorial said. The majority of public opinion in the U.S. now favoured prison without parole rather than capital punishment -- either out of "frustration with the system or revulsion at the punishment".
"The pendulum is swinging away from Pennsylvania's position on a law it cannot even execute," the editorial concluded.
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The issue of race was also playing a major role in the fall in public support for the death penalty, particularly in Pennsylvania, Brian Evans of Amnesty USA told IPS. "There is a lot of doubt about the death penalty especially in Pennsylvania because of the disproportionate racial mix of those on death row," he said.
In Texas, the Dallas Morning News reversed its century-old support for the death penalty in an editorial on Apr. 15, citing mounting evidence that the state had wrongly convicted a number of people in capital trials and probably executed at least one innocent man.
Carlos De Luna was executed in 1989 for the murder of a petrol station attendant, although there was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime. Later, another man boasted to relatives that De Luna had been convicted for a murder he had committed.
In a second disturbing case cited by the newspaper for its change of mind over the death penalty, Ernest Ray Willis was convicted of the murder of two women in 1987. A federal judge later found prosecutors had administered anti-psychotic drugs to Willis during his trial to give him a "glazed over" appearance and show he was "cold-hearted". Prosecutors had also suppressed evidence and provided no physical proof or eyewitnesses. Questions were also raised about the competence of the court-appointed defense lawyers.
The sentence was overturned. Another death row inmate also confessed to the killings. Willis was released after 17 years on death row.
"This board has lost confidence that the state of Texas can guarantee that every inmate it executes is truly guilty of murder," the Dallas Morning News wrote.
"We do not believe that any legal system devised by inherently flawed human beings can determine with moral certainty the guilt of every defendant convicted of murder. That is why we believe the state of Texas should abandon the death penalty -- because we cannot reconcile the fact that it is both imperfect and irreversible."
The number of death sentences handed down in the U.S. has been steadily decreasing as public opinion in support of capital punishment has been falling. Some 315 death sentences were handed down in 1995, 128 in 2005 and 102 last year.
In the last five years, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute juveniles and the mentally retarded. Thirteen of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia currently do not have the death penalty.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.