Sunday, July 5, 2009

Exonerations and the Death Penalty

surface is hard. The crevasses allow the climber to gain footing. With each laborious movement the climber gets closer to his ultimate goal. Her goal is to reach the top, and the danger and difficulty are her obstacles. Her foot slips unexpectedly. She begins to fall, but the safety harness saves her life. She is safe, this error is not fatal.

What does that little story have to do with the death penalty as it is applied in the United States? Well the arguments put forth for the abolition of the death penalty are like saying that the climber’s harness working as designed is the reason rock climbing should be abolished. When I hear a story where a man has been truly exonerated for a crime he was convicted of I see it as another example of the ability of our system to rise above the fallibility of the human condition. The system worked. Now, the other side of this debate hangs on every reversal and claims exoneration anytime a conviction is overturned.

When a conviction is overturned it is usually sent back to the original trial court so it can be retried without the presence of the error found or in the light of new evidence. The investigation is renewed, and the District Attorney’s office then must re-file the case. Over the years, evidence deteriorates, evidence is lost, witnesses are hard to locate, and witnesses forget over time. A good portion of the time, the decision not to move forward has little to do with the new evidence or the difficulty overcoming the technical issue. In these cases, the defendant is not truly exonerated.

With the number of appeals afforded death row inmates today, the opportunities abound for a prisoner who is facing death to show the error and the proof that he was in fact innocent. With the advent of technology like DNA analysis, it is becoming easier than ever to gather new evidence. The truly innocent get a do-over, and are eventually (if not immediately) exonerated.

The other consequence of the advancing technology is an increased accuracy investigating new crimes. As time goes on the accuracy of the system will undoubtedly increase, which will lead to less innocent people being incarcerated. Unlike most proposed remedies for saving the innocent, the accuracy will come with only a limited number of guilty going free. Thus, protecting the community while ensuring the accuracy of the justice system.

In the end, the arguments for abolition actually end up proving that the death penalty in the United States is procedurally sound with increased accuracy of technology in investigation and the system of checks and balances employed today. This is further evidenced by the inability of Death penalty abolitionists to cite the name of one person who was actually proven to be wrongfully executed since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.