Judgement Day

By Dillon Fishman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, March 22, 2005

It's time to kill the death penalty

On March 1, in a much-criticized decision, Roper v. Simmons, the United States Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles, declaring it unconstitutional. Two weeks later, a California judge sentenced Scott Peterson to death. Both cases have kept the spotlight on the death penalty.

With this renewed attention, one thing is clear: It's time to officially kill the death penalty. The Arizona legislature ought to set the example and outlaw it now. But it won't until we Arizonans demand it. We should and we must.

Although reasons for abrogating the penalty abound, there are five particularly persuasive reasons.

First, the death penalty should go because it's permanent, but not error-free. When we talk about punishing people through an imperfect justice system replete with human error, permanence is an exceptionally bad thing. The problem is that even if DNA or other evidence eventually proves that a person didn't commit a crime, we can't reverse the penalty once the person has been executed. There's no second chance.

And the proven error rate is alarmingly high. More than 114 people have been exonerated from death row since 1972. That's more than three people per year. Moreover, those are just the people whom we know science has exculpated. But DNA testing often isn't even used because many jurisdictions can't afford it or have no established procedure for applying it.

In other words, until modern science becomes cheap enough to be used in every death penalty case - to invariably rule out the possibility of a defendant's innocence - we're running the risk of sending innocent people to die.

Worse, there's a high probability that we've already executed innocent people.

That's especially troubling because our justice system was established with precisely the opposite objective: People are presumed innocent until proven guilty. If reasonable doubt exists in a criminal case, the defendant walks. As the saying goes, "It's better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer."

The second reason the penalty should go is because it doesn't promote the goals of our criminal justice system - namely, rehabilitation, education, deterrence and retribution. The death penalty advances none of these interests.

It provides little, if any, social utility beyond that which is accomplished by a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Furthermore, when a person is executed, we make no attempt to promote the interests of education or rehabilitation; instead, we implicitly give up on the offender. In a civilized society, revenge alone shouldn't trump the important, longstanding criminal justice goals of rehabilitation, education and deterrence.

Third, the death penalty should go because it doesn't effectively deter crime. Supporters claim that the death penalty prevents murder by scaring would-be killers with the fear of a death sentence. However, no evidence supports that conjecture. Quite the contrary; studies repeatedly demonstrate that executions do not deter crime. It's just that simple.

Fourth, let us not forget that race discrimination is another inherent, irreconcilable problem with the death penalty. Although black Americans make up about 12 percent of the population, they account for 42 percent of current death row inmates. Since 1976, black Americans make up 43 percent of total executions, but they comprise only around 25 percent of the population. And though both blacks and whites have been the victims of murders in almost equal numbers since 1977, 80 percent of the people executed in that period were convicted of murders involving white victims.

Fifth and last, we should oppose the death penalty because it contravenes basic respect for human life. In fact, all pro-life Christians should assail the death penalty. "Pro-life," to be consistent, means choosing life in all circumstances - including opposing abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. For example, the Catholic Church officially opposes the death penalty, except in very narrow, limited circumstances. Other Christian denominations profess similar doctrine.

Surprisingly, however, there are few anti-death-penalty marches or rallies, even from those who assert that their ultimate aim is to foster a "culture of life." Sadly, that "culture of life" seems to include only some lives - not those whom society has condemned for their bad acts.

The real irony of that position is that it's plainly hypocritical. Jesus Christ taught us to protect the marginalized, outcast and downtrodden. Who better exemplifies a modern pariah than a convicted killer? Pro-life Christians have a duty to oppose the death penalty.

For all of these, and more, reasons, Arizonans - and all Americans - should urge legislators to terminate the death penalty, and now. Even one more execution is one too many.

Dillon Fishman is a third-year law student. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.