Why The Death Penalty Needs To Be Abolished

After 24 years on Death Row, Michael Keenan was released yesterday after evidence that the prosecution withheld evidence that would have exonerated him of the 1988 murder of Tony Klann.

Via Cleveland.com:

A Catholic priest who befriended D’Ambrosio in prison and was convinced of his innocence worked with lawyers to uncover evidence favorable to both defendants that had been withheld by county prosecutors at trial.

That evidence included police statements that concluded Klann could not have been killed at Doan Brook, as the prosecutors’ only eyewitness to the killing claimed.

Our court system is supposed to be a neutral player in the process of justice but there exists a perverse incentive for prosecutors to “rack up a high score” in order to get promotions and establish a legacy of being “tough on crime.” This is particularly true if the prosecutor has political aspirations. Keenan’s case is a perfect example of this; vital evidence, from the police themselves, was withheld to secure what is now, in hindsight, a highly dubious conviction. This would be bad enough in a regular trial but to do so in a murder trial is tantamount to a criminal act in itself. The Fat Smug Bastard has suggested the easiest of all solutions to this epidemic of ambition: every time a prosecutor is found to have deliberately concealed evidence or lied in court to secure a conviction, that prosecutor is to serve the same sentence their victim served, including death if they had already been executed. Sounds eminently logical and fair to me.

There are currently 33 states that have the death penalty. How many innocent people have been executed? It doesn’t really matter. One is too many. Yet we continue with executions, sometimes going so far as to cheer wildly at the body count. The system is so invested in the illusion of its infallibility that death row inmates like Henry Skinner have to fight tooth and nail to have DNA evidence tested at no cost to the state (Skinner was eventually granted the right to have the DNA test run and the results are pending).

Over 130 people have had their death row convictions overturned since 1973. That’s almost ten percent of the number of people executed since 1976. The last time I checked, the Constitution did not make the claim that ten percent is an acceptable margin of error when killing United States citizens.

Allow me to address two criticisms before they’re made, one from the right and one from the left: First, I am not the stereotypical liberal that opposes the death penalty because I treasure all life. That’s not to say that I don’t treasure life but I have no personal compunction about taking the life of a cold-blooded murderer. However, I do have a problem with killing innocent people. Once that step is taken, there’s no mulligans. We, the people, have killed the wrong man or woman and we have to live with that. The bloodthirsty throngs of Republican voters like to pretend that justice has been served and it’s worth the life of a few innocents. Lovely, until the innocent is you or a loved one. And, really, in the final analysis, it’s all about vengeance and nothing else. Capital punishment does not act as a deterrent, it does not lower crime rates, it does nothing except slake the need for payback and mollify the anger of the populace. There’s a reason that conservative red states, whose defining characteristic is, after all, anger, carry out the majority of executions.

The second criticism is that the same standard should be applied to civilian casualties on the battlefield. No, it shouldn’t and no, it can’t. We execute men and women in prisons where the state has total control. It is a deliberate and purposeful act with no possibility of killing anyone other than the prisoner. Warfare is a messy business and precision is in the eye of the beholder. Where once we firebombed the city of Dresden to destroy some factories and make a statement, killing over 25,000 civilians including women and children in a single night, now we can level a building or a house without having to destroy several city blocks. Yes, there are still civilian casualties but we can limit those if we try. That we haven’t done so in Iraq and Afghanistan is an entirely legitimate debate to have at another time.

Aside from the simple fact that we have, without a shred of reasonable doubt, executed innocent people, the corruption and imbalance of the system is manifest. Want to escape the death penalty? Kill a black guy. Or be white. But to really beat the system, be a white guy killing a black guy. There’s an excellent chance you will not get the death penalty. And it gets worse from there.

If the system is so obviously biased than it cannot be trusted to impartially and 100% accurately take a life then it is invalid on its face and it’s time to abandon the practice.