Conservatives are seeing folly of death penalty |

Conservatives are seeing folly of death penalty

Randy Essex
Staff Photo |

After November’s election, the Omaha World-Herald reported that “the Nebraska Legislature looks to be more conservative during the next two years.”

Though the one-house Legislature is officially nonpartisan, the World-Herald said the composition would be 35 Republicans, 13 Democrats and one independent. This was the group that this month passed repeal of the state’s death penalty and then overrode the Republican governor’s veto.

I’m proud of my home state and these lawmakers for choosing rational public policy over popular opinion, and I wish Colorado would do the same.

The arguments for and against capital punishment are entrenched and passionately held on both sides. Increasingly, though, conservatives are seeing its folly.

“It’s not pro-life, it’s not limited government and doesn’t deter crime,” Marc Hyden, a coordinator with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a group that originated in Montana, was quoted as saying.

For me, only one argument is needed.

If we the people execute even one innocent person, we are all murderers. Because our human-run legal system is not and cannot be perfect, we can never be sure that we as a state will kill only guilty people.

Oh, you may say, we will execute only the clearly guilty. The argument doesn’t work because, well, that’s the very core of our justice system now. A criminal conviction requires proof of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and the sentence of death is set only after a separate examination of factors in the case.

The guilt of several men executed since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 has been cast into doubt, and I simply don’t believe our justice system to be infallible. Do you really?

Again: The taxpayer-financed and -sanctioned execution of just one innocent person puts blood on all of our hands. Just one. The fact that such a thing might happen in a state where I don’t live doesn’t let me off the hook.

That profound concern, backed up by the numerous cases around the country of DNA and other evidence overturning convictions of people imprisoned for years, is buttressed by the fact that this ultimate penalty is applied wildly unevenly.

The U.S. Supreme Court suspended the death penalty in 1972, ruling that allowing juries to have complete sentencing discretion could result in arbitrary application of capital punishment. The ruling was in a Georgia case that in effect voided 40 state statutes.

Most states reinstated the penalty under conditions the court deemed acceptable. Today, 31 states have the penalty. Since 1977, when Gary Gilmore was the first American executed after the Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling, 1,408 people have been executed in the U.S. Of those, more than one-third, 525, have been killed in Texas.

Thirty-five percent of those executed have been black, 8 percent Latino and another 1.7 percent nonwhite. The population on death row is even more out of proportion with the demographics our society, with 41.6 percent of condemned inmates being black, 12.8 percent Latino and 2.6 percent “other.”

And yet, according to the FBI, 2,509 white Americans were proven to have committed murder in 2013, compared with 409 blacks.

Seventy-six percent of the victims of those executed since 1977 were white, even though in 2013, 43 percent of murder victims were black.

Colorado has executed just one person in the modern iteration of capital punishment. Nebraska had executed three.

This continues to be a punishment applied with remarkable unevenness across the country. The most likely person to be executed is a poor black man in Texas who is convicted of killing a white person. Do you believe the Texas courts apply this penalty evenly and flawlessly? Is this a system we want to emulate?

For 18 years, I was a journalist in Iowa, which repealed its death penalty in 1965. For another six years, I was a journalist in Michigan, which repealed the death penalty in 1846. Because it’s my job, I follow murder cases more closely than most people and more closely than I’m sure is healthy.

Iowa has what I consider the proper sentence for first-degree murder: Life in prison without the possibility of parole. Killers don’t get out, but anyone exonerated is still able to leave prison.

You don’t know the names of Iowa’s Gary Gilmores because they aren’t made celebrities with their pronouncements and last-minute appeals (they do have appeals, but without the threat of execution, these are merely procedural, not dramatic). The victims’ families are not resubjected to the details of the case with each execution date and last-minute stay, which go on for years if not decades. No state employee must push the button that kills another human being.

These murderers rot anonymously, and at less overall expense to the state than people put on death row.

Killing is wrong. Doing it in the name of the state and the name of vengeance — make no mistake, capital punishment is not about justice; it is about vengeance — does nothing to make it right.

Conservative Nebraska, through a mix of fiscal, religious and other concerns, has decided to get out of the killing business, the seventh state to do so since 2007. Shouldn’t we all?

Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.

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