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Insights: Culture—Death Penalty Reevaluation

Mike Farrell
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

What do former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, actors Ed Asner and Danny Glover, conservative columnist George Will, the Reverend Pat Robertson and former Marine war hero Oliver North have in common?

Not much at first glance considering the yawning liberal/conservative abyss between them. But in fact, given in part to a shift in awareness that is currently sweeping the country, the six now share a skeptical view of capital punishment.  

Admittedly, the position is a new one for the latter three men, and their public declarations have been a bit jarring to their usual allies. Nevertheless, a common bond is being formed. Or is it?  

Cuomo, Asner and Glover have been staunch abolitionists for years, arguing that the death penalty perpetuates rather than deters violence. They, like most death-penalty opponents, have argued that it discriminates racially and economically, does irreversible harm to those wrongly convicted, places a terrible financial and moral burden on society, and provides ambitious politicians with an opportunity to simply posture instead of finding real solutions to crime. These views, though casually brushed aside as liberal cant in recent decades, seem to be gaining some traction today due to developments that are as inescapable as they are inexcusable.  

Innocent people, 87 at last count, have been discovered among the community of the damned. That these men and women have been exonerated and freed is a shocking, eye-opening dash of cold water to those who had complacently assumed that police, prosecutors and the courts were doing a fine job of protecting the good from the bad.  

Some, in fact, have taken a degree of comfort in the self-serving rejoinder offered by apologists who claim that 87 innocents being freed means that "the system is working" and choose to not bother themselves to look any further. Others, made curious by these revelations, begin to ask more difficult questions, especially when they learn that the efforts that freed most of these individuals involved struggling mightily against the very system that is claimed to be working. Thus some people, upon realizing that the fighters were students, family or pro bono attorneys working for years at great personal cost against heavily applied pressure, become actively concerned. It can be disconcerting to realize that those who would just as soon have these cases end in the death chamber might otherwise have to take responsibility for a slipshod, error-prone system shot through with bias.  

Clarence Brandley, who was convicted in 1981 for the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl in Texas, spent nine years on death row and barely escaped two dates with the executioner before being freed. The Texas Ranger investigating the case, after narrowing the suspects down to three janitors, looked at him and said, "You're the nigger; you're elected." Another convict, Kirk Bloodsworth, who was condemned in 1985 for the rape and murder of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton, spent nine years on Maryland's death row because he didn't have an alibi and looked like the composite picture drawn up by a police artist.  

Since both were later proved innocent and freed only through persistent efforts of volunteer attorneys and friends (and in Bloodsworth's case a DNA test in 1993, which was unavailable when he was convicted) vying against a steady onslaught of challenges, assaults and obstacles from those who make up "the system," how do we know that some of the 625 men and women who have been killed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 weren't innocent as well? We don't.  

That question has given rise to some debate. Apologists for the system are quick to make the claim that there is "no proof" that we have ever killed an innocent person. That this position flies in the face of exhaustive work done by Michael Radelet, Hugo Bedau and Constance Putnam in their book, In Spite of Innocence, seems not to register. "No proof," the system's apologists insist, and in fact it's actually a tough point to counter. Though Radelet, Bedau and Putnam present considerable evidence to support their claim that more than 400 people were erroneously convicted of capital or potentially capital crimes between 1900 and 1991 (23 of whom died at the hands of the state), evidence that will stand up in a court of law is hard to come by, mostly because it remains under the control of those who don't want to be proven wrong.  

Death penalty opponents feel it defies logic to believe that a system so error-prone, so riddled with racial prejudice, ambitious prosecutors and less-than-scrupulous police that has exonerated one person for every seven it has executed, has not killed an innocent. Would one trust a doctor who misdiagnosed one out of seven patients? Would one buy a car that had a 1-for-7 record of fatal explosions?  


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