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.
probably shouldnt 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 executedabout 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
rowby appellate court decisions and reviews, or commutations,
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.
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 years 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 innocentand that is a lot more than can be said
about the recipients of the lethal injections.
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.)
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, lets at least be consistent
and stop visiting death on the innocent, whether at Waco
or in Belgrade.