Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The new 'acceptable risk' argument

There's a new argument beginning to circulate among folks we call retentionists -- i.e., those who want to maintain the death penalty system. This new argument sometimes concedes that innocent people inevitably will be executed and sometimes it does not. What it does do, however, is maintain that the potential (or even actual) execution of an innocent person constitutes acceptable risk.

Look at this letter to the editor, which appeared in a Missouri newspaper:

Executions save innocent lives

As the president of Throw Away the Key, the group referenced in your Nov. 28 editorial opposing the death penalty for killers, I would like to explain some of the reasons 64 percent of Americans disagree with you.

In the time that the U.S. has executed 1,000 killers, 600,000 innocent men, women and children have been murdered in cold blood. During that same time, murderers serving life sentences have killed numerous prison guards and fellow prisoners, and some have even escaped and murdered innocent people in our communities.

I dispute your claim that an innocent person among those was 1,000 executed; what about the fact that every year, police accidentally shoot and kill innocent Americans in the fight against crime? Do you support disarming our police forces to save those lives? Of course not, because those guns in police hands save more lives than they accidentally and wrongfully take. It is the same with the death penalty.

You may wish Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Carlie
Brucia's cruel killer could be kept in jail watching cable TV, listening to
their favorite music and playing touch football in the prison courtyard, but the vast majority of Americans are glad that McVeigh was executed and that Joseph Smith is headed in that direction.
Michael Paranzino
Kensington, Md.
The author is president of Throw Away the Key.

There's an awful lot I could say in response. For example, I could point out that polls occasionally show that 64 percent of Americans want to invade Canada. Or that various polls show a majority of Americans think Iraq was behind the awful events of 9/11.

Or I could say that the 600,000 murder rate cited takes us back at least 40 years; on average, since we resumed executions, 15,000 Americans fall victim to murder each year, a rate that is lower than Paranzino would have us believe.

I could talk about the reality of life on death row, at least the ones I am familiar with, mostly in the south. I could talk about how there is no cable TV where I have visited, you don't get to listen to your favorite music and there certainly isn't touch football.

But actually, in the letter I sent in response, I touched upon Paranzino's inference -- however slight -- that executing the innocent is simply a risk we'll have to bear. Here's my response:

Dec. 6, 2005

To the editor:

Michael Paranzino (“Executions save innocent lives,” News-Leader, Dec. 6) implies that the possibility of executing an innocent person under our death penalty system
constitutes acceptable risk. We could not disagree more.

We can argue about how many innocent people have been sent away to await execution, only later freed after having been found to be innocent. We can even argue whether innocent people have been executed in the past quarter century – and if so, how many.

What we cannot and must not do as a democracy is concede that the occasional execution of an innocent person is an acceptable risk in order to maintain the death penalty. This is a system of democracy; of due process and of all of the laws and values that noble tradition entails. Executing the innocent, regardless of the circumstances, violates that tradition.

Just ask the family of Ruben Cantu of Texas or Larry Griffin of Missouri. These two individuals were executed by the states of Texas and Missouri, respectively. Only now is evidence beginning to emerge that they were, in fact, innocent.

David Elliot
Communications Director
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Washington, D.C.


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sibling of schizophrenic said...

"What we cannot and must not do as a democracy is concede that the occasional execution of an innocent person is an acceptable risk in order to maintain the death penalty."

I could not agree with you more! No matter what people's beliefs are for the guilty being executed NO ONE should ever think it's okay that the death of an occasional innocent is okay.

Keep fighting the good fight! I hope to see, in my life time, the death penalty obolished in all US states.