The Death Penalty in the United States: Is It Time To Rethink Our Views?

Last month, Georgia prison inmate Troy Davis was put to death by lethal injection after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request for a last-minute stay of execution.

Davis had been convicted in the 1989 slaying of an off-duty police officer but right up until he was put to death, he insisted that he was innocent of the crime. Sure, that’s what suspects usually say after they are apprehended, but in this case, many thousands of people questioned the accuracy of the case against Davis, according to a story in The Washington Post.

“But his conviction was based on eye witness accounts and no physical evidence,” reports a blog post on the Web site. “Through the years, some of the witnesses have walked back their testimony and doubts have emerged about the case. So much so that the Supreme Court gave Davis a chance to prove his innocence. The AP reports that was the ‘first time it had done so for a death row inmate in at least 50 years, but he couldn’t convince a judge to grant him a new trial.'”

Photo of a prison cell and door. Image credit: ©

Former President Jimmy Carter even took up Davis’ case, according to a story on “Carter said he hoped the case led the nation to reject capital punishment,” the story reports. “If one of our fellow citizens can be executed with so much doubt surrounding his guilt, then the death penalty system in our country is unjust and outdated,” Carter told CBS.

The Davis case again reopens the lingering wounds of death penalty cases in this country. The problem is that while to supporters it may seem to be justice in the aftermath of a hideous crime, the problem is that sometimes justice doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work. Sometimes, people who are innocent of crimes are found guilty of offenses and are sentenced to death or life in prison.

And that’s one of the key reasons that the death penalty today is outmoded, unreasonable and unsupportable by a nation of laws based on personal freedom, due process and justice.

Troy Davis is now dead and at every step of his path he maintained his innocence, but our court system wouldn’t give him a stay to allow the legal process to determine if he was being unfairly treated. Why didn’t we take the time to listen to his claims that witnesses had recanted their original testimony? Why didn’t he have another chance to question the doubts in the case against him?

The finality of the death penalty is truly its major flaw.

Supporters argue its importance as a deterrent against crime.  They often also argue that it has always been justly handed down and that never has an innocent person been put to death.

The latter may not be true, however.

In Texas in 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed after he was convicted of setting a fire in his home that killed his three young daughters in 1991. He continuously maintained that he had not committed the crime, according to The Innocence Project. A 17-page analysis of the case, published in The New Yorker in 2009, detailed how many of the arson analysis methods used to convict Willingham were later found to be flawed.

The Willingham case continues to haunt death penalty opponents.

Just last week, a Texas inmate who had been sentenced to life in prison 25 years ago for the murder of his wife was freed by a Texas appeals court, finally exonerating him after DNA tests linked the killing to another man, according to an Associated Press story.  “The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declared Michael Morton innocent of killing his wife, Christine, and made him eligible to receive $80,000 from the state for each year of confinement, or about $2 million total,” the story reports. “Morton, 57, was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained over the years that his wife and their 3-year-old son were fine when he left for work at an Austin grocery store on the day she was killed, and that an intruder must have attacked her.”

Had Morton been sentenced to death and eventually put to death, an innocent man would have died for a crime he did not commit. That should not be possible in this country.

In December, 2009, we here at MyPhillyLawyer lauded the release from prison of James Bain, a Florida man who finally walked out a free man 35 years after being found guilty of a horrific crime he was accused of committing in 1974. Bain always insisted on his innocence. It took many legal attempts to finally get the courts to analyze his DNA and compare it to DNA left at the scene of the kidnapping and rape of a nine-year-old boy back in 1974.  When the tests were finally done in 2009, the results clearly demonstrated that the wrong man had been charged, convicted and imprisoned.

No one can ever give James Bain those 35 years back, or give back the 25 years to Michael Morton.

These cases dramatically underscore the evidence that our system of law is not without flaws and that it can allow innocent people to be imprisoned for decades.  Even worse, if errors or omissions or mistakes are made, then innocent people can wrongly be put to death under our existing legal system, and that should not be acceptable.

The justice system in imperfect and as long as that is true, the death sentence is also imperfect and should not be allowed.

This past March, the state of Illinois bravely and correctly repealed its death penalty. In a MyPhillyLawyer blog post at the time, we wrote that “Gov.  Pat Quinn of Illinois said so eloquently when he signed the bill, “We cannot have a death penalty in our state that kills innocent people.  If the system cannot be guaranteed 100 percent error free, then we cannot have the system.  It cannot stand.  It just is not right.”

A recent Gallup Poll found that 35% of Americans today now oppose the death penalty, according to a story in USA Today. That’s the highest number since 1972, the paper reports.

There are no easy answers on these issues.

But putting innocent people to death – or even allowing the possibility of innocent people being put to death – goes against everything in our laws and way of life in this country.

It’s time for us as a nation to discuss it rationally, intelligently and openly.

This important topic of the death penalty in the United States will be the focus of MyPhillyLawyer’s Court Radio program at 7 a.m. tomorrow, Sunday, Oct. 16, on WRNB-FM 100.3 in Philadelphia. Hosted by MyPhillyLawyer’s Dean Weitzman, the show will delve into the death penalty and its many facets.

Weitzman’s special guest on the program will be Phil Harris, an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University.

Tune in at 7 a.m. on WRNB 100.3 FM in the Philadelphia metropolitan area or listen live over the Internet. Click the “Listen Live” button on the top right to hear the live broadcast from anywhere.

Feel free to call in with your comments and questions during the broadcast.

Join us for this fascinating discussion tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. on WRNB 100.3 for the latest episode of MyPhillyLawyer’s Dean Weitzman and Court Radio.