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The Death Penalty

I first published this editorial back in 1995. Since then, there has been a steady swing in public opinion towards the view I express - the Death Penalty is wrong, if for no other reason than there is too much room for irreversible error - the execution of an innocent person. The most recent is the commutation of all death sentences in Illinois by the outgoing Governor. I don’t claim any credit for that change in public opinion - not enough people visit this site. Rather credit belongs to individuals and organizations such as Hurricane Carter and the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

At the gut level, I am all for the death penalty. There is a sense of fundamental justice in terminating the lives of those who have maliciously ended the lives of others. But it is truly a gut feeling, all emotion and no thought.

The fact is our justice systems (in all countries around the world) do not have a good record in convicting the right people for murder. Too often, innocent individuals have been sent to jail for crimes committed by others. It is possible, to a degree, to compensate someone for time unjustly spent in prison. There is no way to compensate someone unjustly executed.

It is often said that doctors bury their mistakes. I do not believe we should give the justice system the same privilege.

Until such time as we can develop tools that firmly and truly establish the guilt of those convicted with 100.00% accuracy, we should not take the risk of executing anyone convicted of murder.


(added February 1998)

Since I initially wrote this editorial, there has been a considerable controversy over the execution of a woman in the state of Texas. Even a number of firm supporters of capital punishment lobbied for a reprieve in this particular case. But why should she have been reprieved?

Because she was a woman? But surely in this day and age, we should not be treating women differently than men.

Because she repented of her crimes? If repentance was the key factor, then the death penalty would never be exercised on the guilty. They would always repent. Only the innocent found guilty in error would not repent, and suffer the death penalty.

Because she was a born-again Christian who found faith in jail? Then all those black men who convert to Islam in jail should be treated the same way. Or anyone who becomes a Buddhist, a Hare Krishna, an Apathetic Agnostic, or any other religion.

If you really believe Karla Faye Tucker should not have been executed by the state of Texas, then you are morally bound to extend that belief to all those on Death Row.