Our opinion: Time to kill the death penalty


The facts of the case were horrifying and anyone who has heard about it might justifiably conclude 38-year-old Clayton Lockett deserved to die as painful a death as possible.

Lockett was convicted of shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. On June 3, 1999, she gave a friend a ride and ended up a victim of a home invasion. Lockett and two accomplices beat Neiman and used duct tape to bind her hands and cover her mouth. According to Tulsa World, the men had also beaten and kidnapped Neiman's friend, another woman and a 9-month-old baby. Lockett's accomplices dug a shallow grave and he shot her while she was standing in it. They buried her, even though she was still alive.

Lockett later told police "he decided to kill Stephanie because she would not agree to keep quiet."

He was sentenced to die and on April 29, the state of Oklahoma strapped Lockett to a gurney and pumped his veins full of a lethal drug cocktail. Only, things didn't go as planned. Lockett struggled violently, groaned and writhed after the drugs were injected. Officials halted the execution, citing vein failure, but Lockett died about 20 minutes later of a heart attack.

Prison officials canceled the second execution scheduled for that night. Charles Warner, 46, was convicted of raping and killing his roommate's 11-month-old daughter in 1997. He has maintained his innocence.

Madeline Cohen, an assistant federal public defender who represents Warner, recognizes the thirst for vengeance that is intrinsic in human nature.

"Why should we give them a humane death when they didn't give their victim a humane death? I think that's a base instinct, but that is not what the Constitution provides. ... When we allow our government to take illegal and unconstitutional actions in our name, then all of our rights are jeopardized."

After Lockett's execution, Adam Leathers, co-chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, accused the state of having "tortured a human being in an unconstitutional experimental act of evil."

"Medical and legal experts from around the country had repeatedly warned Oklahoma's governor, courts and Department of Corrections about the likelihood that the protocol intended for use ... would be highly problematic," said Deborah Denno, death penalty expert at Fordham Law School. "This botch was foreseeable and the state (was) ill prepared to deal with the circumstances despite knowing that the entire world was watching. Lethal injection botches have existed for decades but never have they been riskier or more irresponsible than they are in 2014. This outcome is a disgrace."

Richard W. Garnett, a former Supreme Court law clerk who now teaches criminal and constitutional law at the University of Notre Dame told CNN that what went wrong during the execution "will not only cause officials in that state to review carefully their execution procedures and methods, it will also almost prompt many Americans across the country to rethink the wisdom, and the morality, of capital punishment."

Here are some facts about capital punishment in the United States, courtesy of CNN: It is legal in 32 states, with 3,095 inmates awaiting execution; the U.S.government and U.S. military have another 64 people awaiting execution; and since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court, 1,373 people have been executed.

While all of us have a right to express our outrage at the heinous nature of the crimes that result in a death sentence, we must always be mindful that once someone is executed, there is no turning back or making amends if a mistake has been made.

A recent study by Columbia University Law School found that two thirds of all capital trials contained serious errors. When the cases were retried, more than 80 percent of the defendants were not sentenced to death and 7 percent were completely acquitted.

The Death Penalty Information Center notes that since 1971, 144 people had been released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged.

"Many of these cases were discovered not because of the normal appeals process, but rather as a result of new scientific techniques, investigations by journalists, and the dedicated work of expert attorneys, not available to the typical death row inmate," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the information center.

"During the same period of time, over 982 people have been executed," noted a study conducted by students at Michigan State. "Thus, for every eight people executed, we have found one person on death row who never should have been convicted. These statistics represent an intolerable risk of executing the innocent. If an automobile manufacturer operated with similar failure rates, it would be run out of business."

According to Samuel Gross, a criminologist at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, who was the lead author of a statistical review of exonerations that was released this week, at least four out of every 100 people on death row in the United States would be exonerated if given enough time.

"The researchers calculated that if all of those sentenced to death were kept on death row indefinitely without being executed, receiving a life sentence or dying of another cause, at least 4.1 percent would eventually be exonerated," noted Nature. "That number still underestimates the rate of false convictions, Gross says, because many innocent people never manage to prove their innocence."

As Michigan State noted, many of the releases of innocent defendants from death row came about as a result of factors outside of the justice system.

"Recently, journalism students in Illinois were assigned to investigate the case of a man who was scheduled to be executed, after the system of appeals had rejected his legal claims. The students discovered that one witness had lied at the original trial, and they were able to find the true killer, who confessed to the crime on videotape. The innocent man who was released was very fortunate, but he was spared because of the informal efforts of concerned citizens, not because of the justice system."

And CNN's legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, noted that many exonerations of prisoners on death row and elsewhere have happened because prosecutors failed to disclose important evidence to the defense.

What we are trying to say here is the United States' legal system is flawed, and yet we execute men and women every day. Yes, all of the people on death row have been convicted in a court of law. But if we are to believe the researchers, if we mistrust the imperfect nature of human judgment and if we recognize the proven unreliability of eyewitness testimony, we are led to the conclusion that the death penalty should be abolished.

The Reformer believes that if there is even only an infinitesimal chance an innocent person could be executed, then the death penalty is morally wrong. And if, as we profess to be, we are a true Christian nature, forgiveness seems to preclude ending a life, even for the most repugnant of crimes. Instead of the death penalty, we should institute a system of life without parole, which meets our needs of punishment and protection without running the risk of an erroneous and irrevocable punishment.

While some might argue death is all some of these monsters deserve, others might argue that a lifetime behind bars is more of a punishment than death. And while we could also argue about the costs of housing a killer for the rest of his or her life, we could also argue that that is the cost of making sure we are not putting an innocent person to death.


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