Category Archives: The Death Penalty

One in Seven

A family of strong opinions and stubborn, loud personalities,  heated discussions were inevitable on holidays.  To borrow from Matthew 18:20, wherever two or more Watsons or Martinezes are gathered around holiday pie and coffee, there political tension shall be in their midst. 

Our passion for Reagan-era politics were something that defined us.    Before I was two, if I heard my grandfather turn on Rush Limbaugh, I’d throw my toys down and sit in front of the radio. Before I knew how to add, I knew that Bill Clinton was a lying sonofabitch, and Hillary still scares me just a little.  [Especially those caricature pictures of her.  Shudder.] 60 Minutes was a Sunday night ritual.

Watching debates about politics from the sidelines shaped me into the person I am and from an early age, I’d pipe up with commentary that I can imagine was as obnoxious as it was adorable.  Our country’s history and current affairs were a big deal.   To this day,  people and families who don’t talk about, or don’t care about things like that seem strange, and I wonder, “What do they talk about? Each other? Psh.”

Couple hard conservatism with a fervor for criminal justice. My dad had known he wanted to be a cop after a stint in the Marine Corps from the time he was young,  both my grandmothers worked in jails and had personal investments in the outcomes of sheriff elections,  and conversations about major investigations and criminal cases in the ’90s (OJ Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, Oklahoma City Bombing, the beating of Rodney King) dominates no small part of my childhood memories.  My grandma still watches Court TV almost exclusively, except when she takes a break for her Mexican soaps and Project Runway. 

So after Thanksgiving dinner one year, when the younger kids had gone off to watch the first tv airings of Christmas movies on CBS, and the adult discussions had ensued,  it lead to the opportunity for me to announce that I was opposed to the death penalty.  This time, at age 16, it was not a flippant opinion I took up on a whim and would forget later, and they knew it.  My dad looked at me like I had just announced that I really wanted to get a summer job in the prostitution field.

They always knew I’d grow up to be a bleeding heart liberal.  They knew it from the time they had first read to me the story of  The Little Red Hen and, being four, not seeing the analogy on the welfare state, thought the hen was just being a total meanie by not sharing her bread. 

My announcement that year has lead to many discussions, heated as they are long, since.  At first, my arguments were rather weak, lead by my heart rather than my head, stemming from an instinctive understanding that most who supported the death penalty did so out of desire for vengeance, and that this seemed wrong to me.  The valid arguments I did have, hard to articulate.  I often lost.  But I stood my ground, and with time, became immoveable with information.

Did you know that one in seven people on death row are later found innocent?   Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, there have been 1,263 executions.  Statistically speaking, that means 180 innocent people have been killed for crimes they didn’t commit. 

Of course, there are many who say that the collateral damage of having one innocent killed is the cost of achieving “justice” for the six who are guilty.  This argument comes from a surprising amount of people who otherwise identify as “prolife.” 

If you read (which I encourage you to do) the stories of how some of these innocent men came to be convicted of these crimes, it would appall you.   Their lives have weighed on the statements of prison snitches (inmates who lie about having overheard the confession of a fellow inmate in order to obtain a sentencing deal),  false confessions (confessions coerced out of suspects by physical or psychological abuse), mistaken witnesses, white coat fraud, failure to test DNA, and corrupt law enforcement.  The statistics are astounding.

In my reading, it seemed to me that the underlying pattern was that the prosecution and the victim or the victim’s families wanted nothing more than justice to come from somewhere, somehow.  For it to be closed– done with.  If there was a chance that they had brought their daughter, wife, mother or friend’s killer/rapist to justice, then they could close that horrible chapter of their lives and move on.  This is, of course, understandable.  But it’s also wrong.

We saw this happen weeks ago, on a shockingly large scale, when Casey Anthony was acquitted of murdering her daughter.  From an objective point of view, the lack of physical evidence was more than enough to give the jury reasonable doubt, and yet it was not the people close to the victim crying out against this supposed breach of justice. The general public was sent into a twittering outrage.  [Alannis Morrisette could take a lesson in what Irony really means.] 

The public, some of whom had only heard of Caylee Anthony when they got curious about their friends’ statuses, were suddenly tearing their hair in lamentation over our country’s criminal justice system and how it had failed that poor little girl.  Some going so far as to threaten the lives of members of the jury.

Whether Casey Anthony committed the crime is no longer the point. The trial’s over, and she can’t be tried again.  The point is that, this time anyway, our justice system worked.  It worked because we, as a supposedly moral civilization, believe that it is better to let a guilty person walk free than to condemn an innocent. Or, at least, we should.  The Casey Anthony trial, however, proved to me that the bloodthirst of the days of the coliseum are long from over.  It doesn’t matter who pays, as long as someone does.

From a Catholic’s point of view,  the death penalty should be considered heinous, and honestly, a renouncement of belief in God’s justice.  We all want to take matters into our own hands and dole out justice as we see fit– it’s human nature.  But if we believe that God should be the sole ruler of life and death, and that He will punish sinners accordingly, then we should be satisfied to simply have dangerous people off the streets, and our 21st century prisons are more than sufficient. 

As of 1998,  only slightly more than .5% of prisoners  were listed as “escaped” or “AWOL.”

[UPDATE: I had meant to acknowledge here that 13 year old statistics were the most recent I could find from a reliable source, even when using a Google search term as blatant as “number of prison escapes in united states per year.”  If anyone knows where I can find more up-to-date information, please pass it along.]

True, there are still thousands of escapees a year. Why aren’t you hearing about them? The vast majority of escapees are “walk-aways” from community corrections facilities that have minimal supervision. Dramatic, Hollywood-style escapes from maximum security prisons are the ones that draw media attention.

Like their maximum security counterparts, the minimum security walk-aways are usually recovered. State prisons reported that more escapees and AWOL prisoners were returned than escaped every year from 1995 to 1998. The last year with more escapees than recaptured prisoners was 1994, when 14,307 prisoners escaped and 13,346 were returned.

Federal prison breakouts are rarer than state prison escapes. One federal prisoner escaped and was recaptured in 1999, out of a prison population of more than 115,000. He was the only one to escape in the past four years.

I urge everyone to read up on some of the sites I’ve cited.  If you ever get around to reading Actual Innocence,”  you’ll understand how common and how avoidable wrongful convictions are, and how very frightening it is.  That these people, in most cases, did not even know the victim and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, should hit home that this could happen to you or someone you know.  If it ever does, I wonder if you’ll still believe that only the guilty are put to death.

For more information and useful statistics, check out The Innocence Project and http://www.antideathpenalty.org/