It’s hard to be against the death penalty in the United States. Sometimes it’s even hard in my own mind. When I read stories about brutal killers, serial murderers, child killers and molesters I must admit that I really do believe that such people deserve to die.
Yet, that they may indeed deserve to die does not mean that I think the state should have the power to make that decision. No institution should, in my opinion, have that power since all institutions are flawed. The decision of life and death over an individual is too important to be left at the discretion of any institution. Since the institution making the decision is flawed, the unintentional death of innocents is a certainty.
So the question boils down to how many innocent deaths are justified by the knowledge that some who deserve to die do so? Can we countenance the death of even one innocent person in order to continue meeting out lethal “justice” on a hundred guilty people? These questions have, historically, been nothing more than interesting philosophical fodder and perhaps even the prompt for some interesting sociology class discussions.
Now, however, such questions are no longer academic. The death of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 has now cast a glaring and real spotlight on the grotesque consequences of a capital punishment system. It turns out that a scientific analysis of the forensics proves that Willingham was innocent of the crime for which he was ultimately executed. Willingham was accused of intentionally burning his three children to death in a house fire. Turns out the fire was an accident, and his insistence that he was innocent was true. Ironically, his stubborn refusal to admit guilt is what lead to his death, as he was offered a plea bargain to save his own skin with a confession. What does this say about the American system of justice?
We really don’t know how many people have been unjustly killed by the state. Courts do not re-open cases after an execution. This peculiar form of blinding hindsight is a great way to keep our heads in the ground about the possibility (no, the certainty) that in a flawed human system innocent people will be hurt. We do, however, know that plenty of innocent people have gone to prison for crimes they did not commit. Some were later discovered to be innocent and were freed with apologies, as well as possible lawsuits. Since it’s the same system that sentences people to prison and to death, it’s a reasonable hypothesis to suggest that there will be instances of wrongful conviction in both capital and non-capital cases.
So now we return to the original question with renewed vigor and profound wariness. How many innocent victims are we, as a nation, willing to tolerate in order to perpetuate a flawed system? One? Mr. Willingham? How many more are there? Mr. Willingham was found guilty and executed. He was later acquited in the court of history. I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is good enough.