On Death And Justice, Or, What If The Death Penalty Could Be Fair?
Those who support Progressive causes are in an odd position these days: we’re often in the majority on issues that matter; and we’re seriously talking about how to turn what, just a few years ago, was a wish list...into a “reality list”.
Staying in the majority, however, requires the assistance of centrist voters--and that means, from time to time, finding philosophical compromise with voters we’d like to keep “in the fold”.
In years past, the issue of the death penalty has created a considerable chasm between Progressives and centrists; with the one side concerned about the misapplication of capital punishment, and the other convinced that, for the most heinous of crimes, the only way to achieve a truly just outcome is for the guilty party to face the most severe of punishments.
What if we could bridge that gap?
In today’s discussion we propose to do exactly that: to create a death penalty process that only executes those who are truly guilty and excludes those who might not deserve to be put to death...in fact, those who might not be guilty of any crime at all.
Before we proceed further, a bit of “full disclosure”: I am personally inclined to end the death penalty. The reason for this change in personal philosophy is related to the work of The Innocence Project, who would want you to know that as of the date of this writing 240 people convicted of various crimes were later exonerated in the United States through the use of DNA testing (17 of those being inmates who were on various Death Rows at the time).
It occurs to me that the only acceptable level of error in executions is zero, which has also led me to support the option of life without the possibility of parole as an effective death penalty substitute; the thinking here being that a wrongly convicted individual can always be released from life without parole...but until Dr. McCoy returns from his five year mission, the odds that an accidental execution can be reversed are quite low indeed.
“On the other hand, the worst nightmare of a death penalty supporter and of everyone who believes in our criminal justice system is to execute an innocent man.”
--From “A Charge to Keep”, George W. Bush
As you are no doubt aware, in order to obtain a criminal conviction in the United States a prosecutor must prove “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”.
This standard, however, does not guarantee that only the guilty are convicted.
Improper convictions can be obtained for a variety of reasons, which can include eyewitnesses who make mistakes, situations that involve false confessions, the inappropriate use of informants, or even the occasional governmental misconduct.
To reduce the potential for these sorts of failures, I’m proposing that after conviction, and during the “penalty phase” of a trial involving capital crimes, we determine if the evidence presented can meet a higher “burden of proof” than what is required to merely convict a defendant of the crime for which they are facing trial.
That higher burden of proof:
“Guilt beyond any doubt.”
In other words, if, during the penalty phase, the defense could create any doubt at all as to whether the defendant is guilty, or that the conviction is appropriate, that defendant would no longer be death penalty eligible, and a sentence of life without the possibility of parole would be imposed.
This is a good start to reduce the number of improper capital convictions...but there is another important reason the innocent are convicted that this proposal cannot address: incompetent lawyers.
However, there is a way to get at a resolution for this problem: a requirement that all defendants in capital cases be represented by Federally-accredited “death penalty” attorneys, combined with a requirement that each State maintain a staff of accredited attorneys that would be available to defend those individuals who are facing capital crimes and cannot afford private accredited counsel.
All of this could be imposed by Congress with statute law; and an Act defining “cruel and unusual punishment” in part as a failure, in capital cases, to provide the “guilt beyond any doubt review” and accredited attorneys should do the trick just nicely.
Dimitri: I was talking to Zeus the other day, and he thinks you’re a bad influence on me.
Tasso: That’s interesting, because I think he’s a bad influence on you.
Dimitri: In what way?
Tasso: He makes you think the voices in your head are real.
--From "Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar...", Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
There are two counterarguments that might quickly occur to the reader, and I will attempt to address them both here.
First, it is indeed true that this will not absolutely guarantee that there will be no further improper executions...and it is also true that the only way to make such an absolute guarantee is to end the use of the death penalty altogether.
However, this is a great compromise, in that is reduces the odds of such an execution to near zero while still leaving open the potential for executions in cases where no doubt of any kind can be established by the defense.
Secondly, there will be concerns that this proposal will only allow the death penalty to be imposed under the most extreme and unusual circumstances, to which I would reply: that’s exactly correct.
The idea here is that virtually everyone who is accused of a capital crime would end up sentenced to life without the possibility of parole...except in those most rare of circumstances where there can be no doubt whatever as to the guilt of the accused.
This is also a great compromise—after all, does even the most conservative Christian voter amongst us really want to take the chance that innocent people are executed?
To help this process along, I would further propose that Congress enact legislation that allows anyone facing Federal crimes or capital crimes, in any State, the right to obtain and introduce, post-conviction, evidence that could absolutely prove the innocence of a convicted person...and I would encourage Congress or the State Legislatures to pass legislation that would apply this protection to those convicted of all crimes in all States.
We might consider creating “Review Magistrates” to conduct an initial, less formal, review of such claims, with claims deemed appropriately credible advancing to a more formal Court setting for final disposition.
This will also cause some to object to the added burden imposed on the legal system...but the goal of the Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses is not to round up a few of the innocent in order to get all the guilty incarcerated...instead, it’s just the opposite: to let a few of the guilty go free in order to ensure that the odds of the innocent being convicted remain as low as possible.
And with all that said, let’s wrap this thing up:
In order to find a way to compromise between the philosophies of those who seek to end capital punishment and those who support its application, I’m proposing that we review the evidence after conviction in capital cases, as part of the “penalty phase” of such trials, and if the defendant can create any doubt at all, of any kind, as to the propriety of that conviction, that defendant shall be sentenced to life without parole.
I’m also proposing that all defendants facing capital crimes be represented by accredited “death penalty” attorneys, and that defendants have the opportunity, post-conviction, to present exculpatory evidence if it should become available.
The use of the death penalty, not unlike the issue of abortion, has pulled people of good conscience to diametrically opposite sides of a national debate that is not easily resolved.
This set of proposals tries to find the compromise between those two sides, and in doing that we hope to convince centrist voters that Progressives are more than just wild-eyed dreamers—that, instead, they’re realists who seek solutions that represent the interests of all Americans, even those with whom they might not always agree.
In a political world where one side seeks fairness and compromise and inclusion and the other side seeks a ever-crazier brand of moral purity...which they can’t quite seem to live up to...it seems to me that the side seeking compromise is hugely advantaged in elections...and that, as far as I’m concerned, sounds pretty good.
Special Note: We have become aware of concerns related to the health of Walter Cronkite, and we hope he is as hale and hearty as he would want to be.
WARNING—Self-Promotion ahead: I am competing for a Netroots Nation Scholarship, and I was not selected in either the first or second rounds. There is one more chance...and while I’m not inclined to use the “hard sell”...I guess I will today.
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All of us here thank you for your kind attention, and we now return you to your regular programming (which, in keeping with the “hard sell”, is rated PG, instead of the usual G).
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