Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Death penalty and Innocence

Death penalty supporters had a fairly sanguine reaction to news of DNA results proving Roger Coleman's guilt. They broadly interpreted the results as proving that the system works -- as if at least 122 people haven't been released from death row after wrongful convictions, as if there is no possibility whatsoever that an innocent person has been executed. By way of rebuttal we offer the following two pieces.

First, an editorial from today's Washington Post:
Closure on Mr. Coleman
Tuesday, January 17, 2006;

MARK R. WARNER's decision in his final days as Virginia's governor to order the retesting of evidence in the case of Roger Keith Coleman has put an important controversy to rest. Mr. Coleman, executed in 1992 for a rape and murder more than a decade earlier, was shown to be guilty as charged. Mr. Coleman persuaded a great many people of his innocence. Even for those, like us, who were not convinced by his claims, his case was among the more disturbing capital cases to go to execution in the modern era of the death penalty. Thanks to Mr. Warner, those concerned that Virginia might have executed an innocent man now know that the commonwealth carried out the death sentence of a murderer -- and a very clever liar.

The decision of whether to allow post-conviction testing is often characterized -- as it was in Mr. Coleman's case -- as a conflict between certainty and the "finality" of convictions upheld by the criminal justice system. As the Coleman case shows, however, the conflict is often fictitious. When a state has locked up -- or in this case put to death -- the right man, it has nothing to fear from the truth. Where a conviction is not solid, finality is not a virtue.

The final proof of Mr. Coleman's guilt is being cited by supporters of the death penalty as evidence that there is nothing wrong with the system. They are wrong. The outcome merely shows that in a single case in which the evidence was thin and the appellate process cut dangerously short by procedural errors, no harm was done in the end. That's reassuring. But it hardly means the death penalty poses no threat to innocents. Mr. Coleman was not innocent. Others facing death no doubt are.
The second piece (which for space reasons I'm excerpting here) is from a web site called www.postrockcountry.com.
We don't think that capital punishment is really about punishment orpreventing crime. We aren't sure exactly what it is about, but we think perhaps, judging from the reaction of the pro- death penalty supporters to the Virginia case, revenge may be the motivation.

The president of Throw Away The Key, Michael Paranzino had harsh remarks about the DNA results and was hardly magnanimous in victory. He also, in our humble opinion, demonstrates one of the problems with the application of the death penalty - gross over generalization.

Paranzio said: "Stop the presses: it turns out that rapists and killers are also liars. Roger Keith Coleman, like every killer on death row, professed his innocence until the very moment he took his last breath. The only problem was, prominent liberals fell for Coleman's lies hook, line and sinker. New DNA tests released today show that the likelihood that the DNA found in the victim was not Coleman's would be 1 in 19 million. In short, Coleman was a killer. Everyone who said otherwise was dead wrong."

As they almost always do, they (The Jury)looked past the defense lies and well-funded pro-killer activist groups to do justice in this case. Thanks to this jury, a rapist-killer is no longer a threat to the women of Virginia. But this case is an important reminder that the pro-killer forces are powerful and relentless."

"But the fact remains, every killer executed since the American death penalty was restored in 1976 has indeed been a cold-blooded killer.

"The next time a death penalty opponent insists that some killer on death row is innocent, remember that's also what they told us about Roger Keith Coleman. Thug huggers have every right to claim innocence for every cold-blooded killer out there, and we have every right to ignore them. Death penalty opponents have long overreached, but this time they got caught. This is a watershed moment that will further weaken their efforts to protect killers from facing justice."

There you have it, 2 sides to the issue. Not exactly. The DNA testing proved guilt and showed that the State Of Virginia did not execute an innocent man when it executed Roger Coleman, it did not demonstrate in any meaningful way that execution was the proper penalty. The testing did demonstrate that in that particular case the individual executed was guilty of the crime. It did not, by any extension of logic, prove that any other verdict in any other case is accurate. It did, once again, demonstrate the high cost of the death penalty. Eleven years of litigation before the execution, 14 more years after. We spend alot of money executing people. Every study shows we spend way more to exercise capital punishment than life imprisonment. There is a moral argument. Thursday's issue did not address the morality of executing anyone, guilty or innocent. How high is the cost on ethical grounds? How high would it have been if the results had turned out differently on Thursday? Will the world be a better place for us all when we wake up Tuesday morning, after an old man has been put to death?

We doubt if anyone will notice a difference.


BabyBear1952 said...

As for Roger Coleman's "guilt," I'm not even sure about that. I recently read somewhere that authorities (and I believe this took place in Virginia in the example given) had been known to tamper with evidence to spin it towards guilty.

It sounded to me (from what I read about Roger's case a few years ago), he would have had to have been Speedy Gonzales or The Roadrunner to have been able to commit the crime within the given time frame.

But, as you said, his guilt or innocence isn't relative to whether or not the death penalty is right. Even for Sadaam Hussein, the death penalty isn't right, even though I want that nasty man locked up and never let out.

BabyBear1952 said...

One more thing...the killing of that old, sick, blind, deaf, and crippled man the day after his 76th birthday was a sick joke.

It's all about the letter V

Some people run commercial airliners into buildings in hopes of being rewarded with Virgins.

Others refuse to stop executions that absolutely need to be stopped in hopes of being rewarded with Votes.