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Gotta LOVE the death penalty

Illustration by Cody Angell

By Laura Winsky
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday Feb. 14, 2002

The day has arrived once again: St. Valentine's Day. It is a time to spend with loved ones and a time to make Hallmark rich. Everybody wins. Luckily for the unromantic and the unlucky in love, it is only a twelve (or so) hour period which will pass quickly. Which brings us to the point. Have you a very embarrassing or horrific Valentine's memory? Or one that's romantic enough to be rare among us? Drop me an e-mail today, and I'll see if I can finagle my editor into a "My Funny Valentine" section in the morning's paper. (She's hating me right now.)

Since today marks the day of hearts and flowers and little mock-ups of everyone's favorite hero, Cupid, I thought I'd use today's column to discuss a few things along those lines: poverty, bureaucracy and the death penalty. What better day than today?

The death penalty is always a pertinent subject for me, but it is particularly relevant now as the Columbia Law School issues a report putting Arizona back in the hot seat - particularly Pima County. Pima County incorporates the university, making it a local issue worth noting. The study by the law school focused on the 15 counties with the most death sentences, and Pima County came out on top with the highest rate at sending convicts to an execution.

So? Pima County's tough on crime. Yeah for us. That could be a legitimate response if the death sentence was deterring crime here at home, but the study shows much, much more. Nearly 80 percent of our death sentences are overturned on appeal. That's a lot of mistakes and errors when we're talking about a life and death issue. When Illinois reached these kinds of statistics, the governor called for a moratorium on executions until this rate of error could be brought under control. That's exactly the course of action that the state Legislature should follow. Governor Hull should also take action before she steps down. In fact, it's a statement the City Council agreed on two years ago and sent up to the capital. After all, it's the City of Tucson within Pima County experiencing the pain caused by these kinds of ridiculous foul- ups.

Certain professionals in the field, however, are not quick to agree. Rick Unklesbay, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor for Pima County, won't be looking into these mistakes any time soon. At least that's the impression he's left the readers with. "There is little in this study that means anything to me," said Unklesbay. These are strong words coming from the one person who could perhaps reign in the Pima County prosecutors in an attempt to decrease the mistakes that lead to incorrect death sentences. In his view, the Capital Case Commission from Phoenix did a better study that found only 50 percent of death penalty cases were overturned in the last 18 years. Of course, this study includes cases still pending in appeals courts, and it also evokes a serious question. Is 50 percent wrong a suitable percentage when we're talking about innocent lives?

Let's get concrete. We're talking about seven people in the last 25 years who were found innocent, stood up and walked off death row. After spending time waiting to be executed, can they return to normalcy? McDonald's and joking about the dry heat? We're talking about six degrees of separation because we're talking about home: Pima County. With the numbers this high, everyone knows someone who's been affected by the mistakes that Pima County prosecution is making on a daily basis. It's not their fault; the system is flawed. The death penalty should fall under cruel and unusual punishment like it has for every other major nation in the world.

And oh yes. Happy Valentine's Day.


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