Monday, April 16, 2007

Death to the death penalty

Texas is synonymous with capital punishment. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed 391 people. This year, 12 Texans have been executed; the other 49 states have killed a sole convicted murderer.

That's what makes this so surprising: The Dallas Morning News' editorial board has called for an end to the death penalty. Here's the explanation:

Ernest Ray Willis set a fire that killed two women in Pecos County. So said Texas prosecutors who obtained a conviction in 1987 and sent Mr. Willis to death row. But it wasn't true.

Seventeen years later, a federal judge overturned the conviction, finding that prosecutors had drugged Mr. Willis with powerful anti-psychotic medication during his trial and then used his glazed appearance to characterize him as "cold-hearted." They also suppressed evidence and introduced neither physical proof nor eyewitnesses in the trial – and his court-appointed lawyers mounted a lousy defense. Besides, another death-row inmate confessed to the killings.

The state dropped all charges. Ernest Ray Willis emerged from prison a pauper. But he was lucky: He had his life. Not so Carlos De Luna, who was executed in 1989 for the stabbing death of a single mother who worked at a gas station. For years, another man with a history of violent crimes bragged that he had committed the crime. The case against Mr. De Luna, in many eyes, does not stand up to closer examination.

There are signs he was innocent. We don't know for sure, but we do know that if the state made a mistake, nothing can rectify it.

And that uncomfortable truth has led this editorial board to re-examine its century-old stance on the death penalty. This board has lost confidence that the state of Texas can guarantee that every inmate it executes is truly guilty of murder. We do not believe that any legal system devised by inherently flawed human beings can determine with moral certainty the guilt of every defendant convicted of murder.

That is why we believe the state of Texas should abandon the death penalty – because we cannot reconcile the fact that it is both imperfect and irreversible.


From our vantage point in Dallas County, the possibility of tragic, fatal error in the death chamber appears undeniable. We have seen a parade of 13 men walk out of the prison system after years – even decades – of imprisonment for crimes they didn't commit. Though not death penalty cases, these examples – including an exoneration just last week – reveal how shaky investigative techniques and reliance on eyewitnesses can derail the lives of the innocent.

Here is the religious spin on capital punishment, from an article I wrote for The Sun before Tookie Williams was executed:

There is diversity across political ideology and religious dogma.

Generally, though, Jews oppose the death penalty, as do Buddhists. Many Muslims believe it is an acceptable punishment although some decry its application.

Pope John Paul II, who once met with the man who tried to kill him and publicly expressed his forgiveness, strongly condemned the death penalty in 1999. U.S. Catholic bishops this spring announced a campaign to put the punishment to rest.

Most Protestant denominations also have publicly joined the abolitionists in what they see as the other pro-life issue.

But the largest U.S. Christian denomination Southern Baptists support states' rights to execute murderers.

"The same ones who support pro-life support the death penalty. It is an oxymoron,' said the Rev. Michael Nichols, a Southern Baptist chaplain at California Institution for Men in Chino who disagrees with his denomination's stance.

The United States is the only westernized nation to allow capital punishment. Last year, it was one of four countries that accounted for 97 percent of known executions, according to Amnesty International. The other three were China, Iran and Vietnam.

In the United States, this is attributed to stronger Christian convictions, say some theologians and the writings of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

"If we don't have God as the author of law, then law is meaningless because it is whatever we say it is and the Nazis were right,' said Kevin Thomas, an assistant professor of theology and law at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.

Christians who support the death penalty often point to the 13th chapter of the New Testament book of Romans:

"If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.'

Other supporters refer to several passages in the Old Testament, particularly the ninth chapter of Genesis: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.'

But more liberal theologians argue Jesus Christ, who was crucified, opposed executions. In fact, Christ is credited with the clemency most widely known throughout history that of a woman caught in adultery.

"If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,' he said, according to the Gospel of John.

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