Archive for Friday, May 23, 2003

Death penalty support puzzling

May 23, 2003

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This is one of those instances when I will admit, openly and honestly, to being out of touch with American public opinion.

Monday, the Gallup Organization released its latest update on the death penalty, and it showed what I suppose those of you in the majority already know: Support for capital punishment remains strong.

Yes, even when states such as Illinois and Maryland have imposed moratoriums on executions, even when judges in Pennsylvania and lawmakers in New Jersey think the current system is flawed, Americans seem to have few qualms about using this final form of punishment.

In the Gallup poll, 74 percent favored the death penalty for a person convicted of murder -- a proportion that hasn't been that high in eight years.

Gallup reports that this is despite the belief among most respondents that innocent people have been put to death in the last five years.

This is something I cannot pretend to analyze or explain. We acknowledge innocent people are on death row, we acknowledge that sometimes they are killed for crimes they did not commit -- yet we believe that this is an acceptable byproduct of a punishment that, far as anyone knows, has little deterrent value. Perhaps we believe it's justified as the collateral damage in a war without end.

With numbers as overwhelming as these, and with an increasing majority of Americans believing that the death penalty is applied fairly, I suspect that most views are fixed on the matter. Polls tell us that supporters tend to be ideologically conservative, Republican and less well educated than opponents.

Make of that what you will.

But I tell the story of John Thompson in the hope -- vain though it may be -- that someone will have a second thought. A realization that the system is only human, and human beings are flawed, which is why we should rarely, or never, assume to decide who should live and who should die.

Thompson was only weeks away from execution in New Orleans in 1999 when two Philadelphia lawyers, working pro bono, helped save his life. Thompson had been convicted of murdering a prominent hotel executive in 1984, and was sentenced to death because of a previous robbery conviction. He insisted all along that he was innocent of both charges.

He was young and black, a small-time drug dealer in a Southern state, so naturally his punishment was severe. (A disproportionate number of death row inmates are black males, and the South leads the way on executions.) Just one happy, last-minute glitch: A dogged defense investigator discovered that a key piece of evidence was deliberately withheld from Thompson's robbery trial -- evidence that cleared him of that charge and prompted a judge to throw out the death sentence.

There was also a deathbed confession and the abrupt resignation of a rising star in the district attorney's office. Who needs reality TV when reality is so much more dramatic?

Last year, faced with life without parole but still proclaiming his innocence, Thompson was granted a new murder trial after his lawyers found witnesses who had never testified before a jury. Then on May 9, after less than an hour of deliberation, a New Orleans court found him innocent of murder.

Eighteen years in jail and two false convictions is torture enough. But what if that man had been put to death?

The Gallup Poll found that most respondents believed that only rarely are innocent people wrongly executed. Pray tell, what is rare? And how can we possibly know? How many poor folks are languishing on death row because they weren't lucky enough to catch the attention of a couple of big-city lawyers?

I'll never understand why Americans can remain so blase about the state-sanctioned killing of innocent people. But this is one time I don't mind being in the minority.

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