Death to the Death Penalty

The debate over capital punishment is getting hotter. Thanks to the decision by outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute the death sentences of all 156 men on Illinois' death row, the issue of whether society should be exacting what is the ultimate punishment is once again on the table.

Gov. Ryan commuted the sentences because of his belief that our system of capital punishment is broken, that it is biased based on race, geography and class. He's right.

Studies conducted by a blue-ribbon panel in Illinois -- appointed after Gov. Ryan imposed a moratorium on capital punishment -- and by the University of Maryland have raised serious questions -- and have confirmed what other death penalty studies always seem to find.

In Illinois, for instance, the panel found that rural areas of the state were five times more likely to opt for the death penalty than the predominantly urban Cook County. And they found that police misconduct, unqualified attorneys and other factors greatly influenced the outcome of capital trials.

To address these issues, the panel issued a list of 85 recommendations that would limit the number of death sentences and impose greater scrutiny on the process. The report stopped short of calling for abolition of the death penalty, though a majority of the panel's members believed this would be the best course.

"The commission," the report says, "was unanimous in the belief that no system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death."

Former US Sen. Paul Simon, a member of the panel, told reporters in April when the report was released that the reforms identified in the report would "improve our system of justice." However, he said, "as long as you have capital punishment there is no guarantee that innocent people won't be put to death."

The Maryland study, commissioned in 2000 by then-Gov. Parris Glendening, reviewed 6,000 murder cases and found that race and geography played major roles in determining who was sent to death and who was not.

According to the report, the victim's race proved a major factor in determining whether prosecutors sought the death penalty. In Maryland, all 12 of the people currently on the state's death row were convicted and sentenced in connection with the murder of a white victim, even though blacks make up about 80% of homicide victims. (Nationally, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, about 80% of those convicted of a capital crime were convicted for killing a white victim, although whites make up only 50% of murder victims.)

According to the Maryland study, prosecutors filed papers asking for death penalty in nearly half the homicides where a black defendant killed a white victim, about double the rate for all other homicides.

"Black offenders who kill white victims are at greater risk of death sentences than others, primarily because they are substantially more likely to be charged by the state's attorney with a capital offense," the report said.

In addition, decisions made by prosecutors locally affected whether a defendant might end up on death row, which led to geographical disparities. The study said that prosecutors in Baltimore County were much more likely to seek the death penalty than prosecutors in other counties and jurisdictions, even though the county had fewer death-penalty eligible cases.

These mitigating factors are at least part of the reason why 102 people have been found innocent after being convicted and sentenced to death since 1973 -- and why an unknown number of innocents have likely been killed during the same time period.

It is important to point out, as well, that the United States is one of the few developed countries in the world that still practice capital punishment. Only China, Iran and Saudi Arabia execute more prisoners than the United States. That is not great company to be among.

Altogether, 820 people have been executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated by the US Supreme Court in 1977, with 71 being sent to death in 2002 and 66 being executed in 2001.

These figures raise serious questions about the ability of our judicial system fairly and effectively to administer so final a punishment, one that cannot be reversed once meted out.

A good start would be for the US Senate to pass legislation -- introduced by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) that would establish a national commission to study whether it is possible to correct the flaws in the death penalty system to ensure that innocent men and women are not sent to death and would impose a national moratorium on capital punishment until the study is completed.

Such a study is likely to find what it took retired Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun to conclude: that "the death penalty experiment has failed."

"It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies," he wrote in his dissenting opinion in Callins v. Collins in 1994. "The basic question - does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants "deserve" to die? -- cannot be answered in the affirmative."

And given that there is scant evidence demonstrating that capital punishment is an effective deterrent, there is no legitimate ethical or moral reason for it to continue.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey weekly newspapers. Email

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