Death of Innocents
George Szamuely
New York Press


The New York Times editorial on the day after the execution of Gary Graham sonorously declared "there is powerful evidence that he did not commit the murder for which the state put him to death." Actually, there is none. Thirty-three state and federal judges reviewed the case over a period of almost 20 years and found no basis for overturning the verdict. To be sure, Graham was convicted on the testimony of a single eyewitness. But that is not unusual. Bernadine Skillern identified him right away and has never doubted what she saw that night. The other witnesses, on the other hand, had changed their stories a number of times over the years. Moreover, at a 1998 hearing Graham presented four alibi witnesses on his behalf, two of whom were relatives, including his wife. The courts found it a little hard to believe that such key witnesses would have forgotten to come forward at the time of the trial.

Graham probably shouldn’t have been executed, but this judgment has nothing to do with his supposed "innocence." To argue against the death penalty by claiming that the innocent are being put to death in America is foolish. Take the recent Justice Project report "A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995." The death penalty system, it asserted, is "collapsing under the weight of its own mistakes... Nationally, during the 23-year study period, the overall rate of prejudicial error in the American capital punishment system was 68 percent." The media jumped at this finding, assuming it to mean that 68 percent of death row inmates were innocent. The report suggested no such thing. Capital punishment cases are subject to far more intensive scrutiny than other cases. Consequently, there is far greater likelihood of discovering procedural errors and other grounds for overturning verdicts. In 1998, for example, 285 people were sentenced to death; 68 prisoners were executed–about 2 percent of the total on death row; and 80 had their sentences of death overturned or removed. According to the Justice Dept., as of Dec. 31, 1998, of this 80, 48 were serving reduced sentences; 15 were awaiting a new trial; 10 were awaiting resentencing; one was resentenced to time served; and four had no further action taken against them. From 1977 to 1998, 5709 people were sentenced to death. Five-hundred were executed, and 2137 were removed from death row–by appellate court decisions and reviews, or commutations, or death.

Thus, if you are sentenced to death, you are four times as likely to escape the punishment as have it carried out. Nonetheless, release from death row is not the same thing as being acquitted. For all its huffing and puffing, the Justice Project was unable to cite a single example of anyone who had been wrongfully executed during the 23 years under study.

The Times is oblivious to such complexities. The death penalty is objectionable, it thunders, on the "grounds that it is morally wrong and also unconstitutional as being cruel and unusual... The way it is meted out in this country is so grossly arbitrary, so racially unfair and so full of legal mistakes that there is no way to ensure that innocent people will be spared." Why is the death penalty "morally wrong"? Because it is bad when the state snuffs out the life of a human being? Odd. The Times was a fervent champion of last year’s destruction of Yugoslavia. It has no problems with the continuing sanctions against Iraq. "By any moral standard, there can be no margin for error when the state takes human life." Tell that to the relatives of the children killed by cluster bombs in Nis. Or the infants dying in Baghdad. Those victims are all innocent–and that is a lot more than can be said about the recipients of the lethal injections.

And why is the death penalty "unconstitutional"? People have been executed since the earliest days of the Republic. It is a little late now to turn around and say that this punishment is "unusual." As for the death penalty being "racially unfair," no matter how many times this cliche is trotted out there will still never be a scrap of evidence to support it. According to the DOJ, of the 68 who were executed in 1998, 40 were white and 18 black. During that year, a total of 1906 whites and 1486 blacks were awaiting execution. Of the 285 who were sentenced to death, 145 were white and 132 black. Of those who received the death sentence between 1977 and 1998, 50 percent were white and 41 percent black. Of those who were removed from death row during those years, 52 percent were white, 41 percent black. The numbers remain remarkably consistent. Yes, blacks are on death row in disproportionate numbers. But blacks are seven times more likely to commit homicide than whites. Since the white population is about six times that of the black, the statistical disparity, if anything, favors blacks. (Note: the Justice Dept. generally, but not always, counts Hispanics as white.)

The argument against the death penalty has to be based on something else. Yes, it is possible that innocent people have been wrongly executed. But that is not an argument for the abolition of capital punishment. One could as easily suggest getting rid of the justice system altogether on the grounds that people are wrongly imprisoned all the time. To be sure, while there is life there is hope. But that is scarcely much comfort to someone sentenced to life without parole for a crime he did not commit. Moreover, there is something truly repellent about The New York Times demanding hate-crimes legislation one minute (which serves no other purpose but to make punishment extra-severe) and shrieking about mistakes in the system the next. If we are to do away with the death penalty, let’s at least be consistent and stop visiting death on the innocent, whether at Waco or in Belgrade.

Read George Szamuely's Exclusive Column

Archived Columns by George Szamuely from the New York Press

Death of Innocents

NATO's Home Free

Poll Attacks

Israel's Powerful Friends

Defense Against What?

God Bless Rehnquist!

Long, Hillary Summer

Communicating Power

Law as Ordered

What Threat?

Peculiar Yet Brave

Closed to Debate

Arrogance of Power

Prison Love

Gore's Oil

Rough Justice

Race Race

Al the Coward

Intruder Alert

McCain's Money

Haider Seek

Out of Africa

Prosecute NATO

Villain or Victim?

Intervention, Immigration, and Internment

Home-Grown Terrorism

Who Benefits?

Laws of Return

Embassy Row

Selling Snake Oil

Chinese Puzzle

That Was No Lady, That Was the Times

The Red Tide Turning?

Pat & The Pod

United Fundamentalist States

Let Them All Have Nukes!

Liar, Liar

Gangster Nations

Puerto Rico Libre – and Good Riddance

Leave China Alone

A World Safe for Kleptocracy

Proud To Be Un-American

All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press


Back to Home Page | Contact Us