Vail Daily letter: Abolish death penalty
The release this week of two men incarcerated for 31 years for a crime they did not commit prompts me to respond to the editorial in this paper advocating the continuation of the death penalty in our state. The circumstances surrounding this case are not that unusual: Two half brothers, mentally handicapped teenagers, were visiting relatives in a small North Carolina town. Because they were strangers, suspicion fell on them following the rape and murder of a young girl. Subjected to harsh and prolonged police questioning without the presence of an attorney or a relative, they finally signed a confession in hopes of being permitted to go home. Without any other incriminating evidence, an over-zealous district attorney sought the death penalty for both. He was successful in obtaining it for Harvey Lee McCollum, then 19 years old, who has spent the last 31 years on death row. His half brother Leon Brown, then aged 15, received a life sentence without parole. A similar crime committed by a neighbor of the dead girl shortly thereafter did not lead to a re-examination of the conviction. It is only through the persistent efforts of volunteer organizations like The Center for Death Penalty Litigation that after countless time and expense the state was finally persuaded to examine DNA evidence that exonerated the two innocent men and incriminated the true culprit.
A major argument for the death penalty is that it serves to deter crime — specifically murder. Yet no good evidence has yet been developed to support this theory. In fact, jurisdictions without the death penalty have consistently shown lower murder rates than those with it. Since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstituted in this country, 82 percent of executions have occurred in the South; the overwhelming majority of them in Texas. If we look at other Western democracies, not one still has the death penalty and yet all of them have murder rates less than half of ours. In the U.S., there are currently more than 3,000 persons on death row in various jurisdictions waiting to be executed.
Another argument against capital punishment is that it is not equitably administered. If you are to die at the hands of the state, it helps to be poor and to be black and if you are going to commit murder it helps to be white and rich so that you can hire a good lawyer. Most legal representation of indigent defendants continues to be by inexperienced lawyers. The chief district attorneys in counties that continue to use the death penalty are 98 percent white and they are the decision makers in asking for the death penalty. Although 50 percent of murder victims are black, 82 percent of death row offenders have been convicted for the murder of whites. Unfortunately, the days of racial bias in capital cases are not behind us.
Finally, there is the issue of error with which I started this letter. In a study by Michael Radelet of the University of Florida, he found 343 cases in which a defendant facing a possible death penalty was wrongfully convicted. Of these, 137 were sentenced to death and 25 were actually executed. Can we as a society play God and pretend that this is justice? Is there any murder more premeditated than one carried out by the state through a, sometimes flawed, judicial process? If we as a society are to end the circle of violence, what better way than not to commit violence ourselves. It is time for Colorado to join the 18 states that have already abolished the death penalty. The alternative of life imprisonment without parole is less costly and provides opportunity for redress if a judicial error has been made.
George L. Mizner
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