I am against the death penalty. It is not a deterrent to violent criminals and the statistics are there to back that up. It costs more to house an inmate sentenced to death than to house an inmate sentenced to life in prison. Of course cutting out the appeals process would likely cut down on that cost, but it would also ensure more innocent people are put to death at the hands of the state. Killing is killing whether it is killing in the name of vengeance, justice, passion, religion or sport. I don’t think anyone has the right to decide who lives and dies and isn’t that really what the death penalty is? A jury of twelve men and women or a judge deciding to take someone’s life? Isn’t that a decision that should be left up to God?
Of course I bring this up because of the tragic massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Colorado does in fact have the death penalty. If prosecutors are able to prove premeditation, the shooter, James Holmes, will almost certainly be facing the death penalty. Here’s where things get murky for me. I am against the death penalty but it’s extraordinarily difficult to stand by that when someone has committed such a horrifically violent act. Twelve people are dead. Dozens more are injured. The people in the theater that survived, the families and friends of those who died, will carry this event with them for the rest of their lives. It’s hard to convince myself James Holmes doesn’t deserve to pay for the horror he inflicted on those innocent people with his own life.
Will sentencing James Holmes to death bring back the people who were killed? No. Will it send a message to anyone else out there considering a similar act? Of course not. Deranged people are not thinking logically about their actions. They aren’t thinking about the consequences after the fact. At the same time, twelve people are dead and scores of lives have been changed forever. An innocent trip to the movies to see a film many in attendance had been waiting months if not years to see turned into a real life horror movie. And the person responsible is still here. He’s still breathing. Is a life sentence really enough?
There aren’t any easy answers when it comes to this sort of question. Lock him up and throw away the key, fry him in the electric chair, chain him up in a psych ward or let him walk the streets. Those are really the only options, aren’t they? Yet not one of those options seems like the right one. This man has obviously given up his right to ever take another breath of air as a free man, but putting him in a jail cell for twenty-three hours out of the day hardly seems like an appropriate punishment when twelve people will never take another breath at all because of him.
There are many problems with the death penalty – the biggest one being that the entire system is deeply flawed. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, at least ten people have been put to death despite strong evidence that they may have been innocent. That is just unacceptable. It doesn’t matter which side of the debate you fall on. The government cannot be allowed to put people to death if their guilt isn’t 100% clear. In 2008, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a full and unconditional pardon to Joe Arridy, a man with an IQ of forty who had been convicted as an accessory to murder in 1936. This posthumous pardon was granted due to overwhelming evidence of Arridy’s innocence, notably the fact that it was proven Arridy was not even in town when the crime was committed. The problem? Joe Arridy was executed for the crime nearly seventy-two years before the pardon was granted.
That’s just one case though, right? How many more people have been exonerated of their crimes after being sentenced to death? 140. 140 people would’ve been put to death had it not been for lawyers, journalists or sometimes students working tirelessly to bring new evidence to light. These people were exonerated entirely based on evidence clearly stating their innocence. We’re not talking about people who were taken off death row based on a technicality. We’re talking about people released because they were innocent of the crime they’d been convicted of. There have been more than 1,000 people executed since 1976. It is impossible to tell how many of those executed were actually innocent but at least ten people were executed despite strong evidence they may have been innocent, as I mentioned above. Let’s take a moment to look at those cases.
Carlos DeLuna – Texas, 1989
Carlos DeLuna was convicted of fatally stabbing Wanda Lopez, a convenience store employee, in 1983. He was executed six years later. Since his execution, new evidence has come to light to implicate another man, Carlos Hernandez, in the crime. Hernandez not only had a record of committing similar crimes but also confessed to murdering Lopez. As shocking as this case it, it isn’t the first time Texas has been accused of executing a possibly innocent man.
Ruben Cantu – Texas, 1993
Ruben Cantu was convicted in 1985 of fatally shooting a man during a botched robbery. While he maintained his innocence up until his execution day, it should probably be pointed out many guilty people will proclaim their innocence as long as they have breath in their lungs. It’s a little bit different with Ruben though as there is strong evidence to support the idea that he was telling the truth all along. Both the prosecutor and the jury forewoman that worked on the case have come forward to admit they may have been wrong and that Ruben may have been innocent. It’s my humble opinion that another look at the case is in order when two people instrumental in securing a conviction come forward with doubts. In addition to that though, two key eye witnesses have stated they were lying when they identified Ruben as the guilty party. Bexter Country District Attorney Susan Reed has upheld the conviction and maintain Cantu’s guilt but considering she was the judge who denied his appeal and set his execution date, the conflict of interest does little to put the doubts about his guilt to rest.
David Spence – Texas, 1997
David Spence and his controversial execution stands as the most glaring example of how incredibly flawed the death penalty is. Convicted of killing three teenagers in 1982, Spence was put to death despite the fact there was no physical evidence connecting Spence to the crime and the only testimony offered to support his guilt came from prison inmates. While prison inmates are not inherently bad witnesses as they can have access to information a suspect would not readily give up to police, the inmates in this trial were offered favors in exchange for testifying against Spence. More damning than that though? Marvin Horton, the police lieutenant who oversaw the Spence investigation has gone on record to state, “I do not think David Spence committed this crime.” Finally, Roman Salinas, the homicide detective in charge of conducting the investigating into the murder of the teenagers has stated, “My opinion is that David Spence was innocent. Nothing from the investigation ever led us to any evidence that he was involved.”
Gary Graham – Texas, 2000
Gary Graham was convicted of the 1981 murder of Bobby Lambert based on the testimony of a single eye witness. The eye witness only saw the killer from 30-40 feet away through her car windshield and only saw him for a few seconds. Two convenience store employees who got a good, close look at the killer stated Graham was not the killer. Those witnesses were never interviewed by Graham’s lawyer and were not called to testify at his trial. Three of the twelve jurors who voted to convict signed sworn affidavits stating they would have voted differently had they heard the testimony of the other two witnesses. Even so, Graham’s conviction was upheld and he was executed in 2000.
Claude Jones – Texas, 2000
Claude Jones was convicted of the murder of a store owner based on a single strand of hair that tied Jones to the crime scene. The problem? DNA testing has shown the hair did not in fact belong to Jones but instead belonged to the victim. With that one piece of evidence removed from the equation, it’s hard to believe Jones would’ve ever stood trial, let alone been put to death.
Troy Davis – Georgia, 2011
This one is especially hard for me to wrap my head around because I remember watching Democracy Now cover the execution, waiting for hours for the state to come to its senses and stay the execution. I don’t know that Troy Davis was innocent. I don’t know that he deserved to walk away a free man but I know he at least deserved a new trial. Several of the witnesses who helped convict Davis recanted their statements, some even claiming they were coerced into giving the statements. Many witnesses pointed to another suspect. None of that information was given to jurors and a new trial was never granted. Davis was put to death on September 21, 2011 after the US Supreme Court delayed the execution, considered final appeals and then decided to deny a stay of execution anyway.
There are more cases out there. For more information, check out this website. Cases like the ones we’ve just talked about that really make it hard for me to support the idea of the death penalty. If just one innocent person is put to death by the state, does that not make the state guilty of murder? The most disturbing part, for me anyway, is how little it sometimes takes to convict someone of a crime they may not have committed and have them sent away to sit on death row, hoping somehow, someone will clear their name. I can’t imagine how that would feel.
It’s also important that we not just focus on the inmates but also their families and especially the victims. In some of these cases, it is entirely possible – even likely – that the victim did not receive the justice they deserve. An innocent man may have died for a crime he didn’t commit, making more victims in an already tragic situation, while the real killer or killers continued to roam the streets. It’s also possible with many of these crimes that the criminal responsible continued to commit crimes and eventually was thrown in jail, but one has to wonder how many more crimes were they responsible for and how many more innocent people did they victimize before they were apprehended? Of course, it’s also possible that some of the men we just talked about actually were guilty but without the benefit of a new trial or without the new evidence being heard, it’s impossible to say.
Before you jump right to the comments section to call me a bleeding heart liberal, I implore you to please read the second part to this article. I intended to post it all as one but this is a subject I’m passionate about and went on a bit longer than I expected. In the second article, you’ll find a list of people I feel are examples of how the death penalty can be applied properly when the circumstances are right. If you still feel I’m a bleeding heart liberal after you read that article, feel free to chew me out in the comments section on that one. You can read part two of my thoughts on the death penalty by clicking here.