Why the death penalty is a very very bad thing

I wonder how many of the nearly 30,000 people who have signed the e-petition to bring back the death penalty have ever heard of Todd Willingham. He was executed in Texas in February 2004 for the murder of his three young children, despite consistently protesting his innocence and serious doubts about the scientific evidence used to convict him.

Or Steven Woods, who was executed last week for a double murder, even though an alleged accomplice later confessed to pulling the trigger.

Or Troy Davis, who is due to be executed next week for a murder nearly two decades ago, even though the case against him has fallen apart.

Probably not many.

They probably don’t know much about the facts surrounding the death penalty either.  They like the argument that it acts as a deterrent so probably aren’t interested in the fact that the Southern states of the US have the highest murder rate and account for over 80 per cent of executions, whereas the north eastern states have the lowest murder rate and account for less than one per cent of executions.

They probably also think that it would be a lot cheaper to just bump off criminals than keep them in prison for the rest of their lives, even though in Texas a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times keeping someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.

And they almost certainly think that innocent people aren’t executed because there are so many checks, balances and appeals built into the system.  This despite the 138 people who have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence since 1973.

I am sure most of them don’t share the view of Texas governor and Republican presidential frontrunner Rick Perry that he has never lost any sleep worrying about the innocent people that might have been executed on his watch.  But if they don’t remember Stefan Kiszko, the Birmingham Six, Barry George or Sally Clark or any of the other countless miscarriages of justice in the UK then they are deluding themselves that such things couldn’t happen here.

Tragically for those on death row in the most murderous state in the US, Governor Perry is their last hope for clemency if all other appeals fail.  He certainly isn’t a lily-livered bleeding-heart liberal.  He has presided over by far the highest number of executions of any governor in modern times – 235 since 2000.  He has rarely shown clemency, only once in 11 years, unless forced to do so by the courts.

Perry was recently under the spotlight for refusing to act on the case of Duane Buck, who has spent the last 16 years on death row in Texas after the jury at his trial were told by Walter Quijano, an ‘expert’ psychologist, that black people posed a greater risk to society.  Buck was granted a 30-day reprieve last week while the US supreme court decides whether to hear his case.  If it refuses, Buck’s lawyers will ask the Texas board of pardons and paroles for a clemency hearing.

The board has rejected previous attempts to get Buck’s death sentence commuted, even though other cases in which Quijano gave racially-tinged testimony have been awarded resentencing hearings.  So the chances are they will again and that Perry will uphold this recommendation.  This will come as no surprise, since Perry appoints the board and, as well as his own obvious belief in the death penalty, is clearly only too aware of the political capital he gets from supporting it.

It would be naïve to think our politicians couldn’t, or wouldn’t, influence the death penalty’s operation were it reintroduced in the UK.  While our justice system is far less politicised than that in the US, where appointments are political and district attorneys have to run for office, politicians still have an input, albeit mostly at arm’s length.  But as rows about sentencing for rioters and rapists have shown, justice is not a politics-free zone.

The overriding problem with the death penalty is that it feeds our desire for retribution rather than the requirement for justice and this becomes more pronounced the more violent and horrific the crime.  Someone must pay and an eye for an eye becomes more important than fairness or equal treatment.  So it’s just an inconvenience if the prime, or only, suspect may well be innocent

It is now widely accepted that Todd Willingham’s daughters burned in an accidental fire caused by a space heater, not as a result of arson.  But initial investigators never seriously considered that possibility.  It wouldn’t have fit their story, it was too random, it left no-one to blame.  Perry could have spared his life, but Willingham was damned by his refusal to plead guilty for a crime he didn’t commit and his love of ‘satanic’ heavy metal music (yes seriously).

If politicians take on the role of cheerleader for the death penalty then they have to make that enthusiasm manifest, ensuring the worst criminals are put to death.  But who are the worst criminals:  Serial killers?  Probably.  Child and cop killers?  Possibly.  Armed robbers?  Maybe.  And when would there be mitigating circumstances: crimes of passion, youth, mental illness, genetic disposition?*

Wherever the line is drawn, there is no doubt that Troy Davis should be on the right side of it.  There is no physical evidence linking Davis to the killing of a Savannah police officer:  the case against him consists entirely of witness testimony.  There were inconsistencies in this evidence even at the trial, but since then, seven of the nine witnesses against him have recanted or contradicted their testimony.

Troy Davis may yet be thankful that he is on death row in Georgia and not Texas.  The doubt surrounding his case has attracted international attention and high-profile calls for his sentence to be commuted, including from a former FBI director and federal judge and prosecutor.  The Georgia board of pardons and paroles will hear his case on Monday.  It’s not too late to save him, possibly an innocent man, certainly one who has not been proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.

You can contact the board here.  Please do it.  For the sake of justice.

* In 2006, Bradley Waldroup, who killed a woman and attacked his wife was spared the death penalty because a forensic psychiatrist, William Bernet of Vanderbilt University, found that Waldroup has a variant of the “warrior” gene: "His genetic makeup, combined with his history of child abuse, together created a vulnerability that he would be a violent adult."  This brings questions of guilt and innocence further into question – not black and white, but shades of grey.

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