Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
When I started researching the death penalty in 1995, roughly 80% of Americans favored its use. The death penalty was a rare point of consensus in American politics, crossing party affiliation and political ideology.
Times have changed. The unicameral legislature of a very conservative state, Nebraska, voted last week, 32-15, to repeal capital punishment. Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill on Tuesday. But on Wednesday Nebraska became the 19th state to abolish the death penalty after legislators voted to override the governor’s veto.
Clearly, a tide is building against the death penalty in America. One of the most powerful factors is science. DNA evidence in the past 20 years was a strong reason for the exoneration of many of the 153 innocent people released from death row during that period. These people in earlier generations would have been wrongfully put to death. This realization has challenged the conscience of a fair-minded country that doesn’t want to kill innocent people.
The DNA evidence also confirms a common-sense insight that criminal-justice systems are flawed because they rely on human beings who can err through honest mistakes, greed, fraud and other frailties of the flesh. For a Catholic Christian like me who believes in the inherent sinfulness of human nature, the existence of the corruption of some human systems and judgments is shocking, but hardly surprising.
What has surprised me for some time is that there has not been greater resistance to capital punishment by conservatives, since they are often the watchdogs of governmental misuse, abuse and corruption. Yet their skepticism is often absent regarding a judicial system that relies on overworked public defenders to ensure justice in many capital cases. A battery of highly paid defense attorneys working with scores of experts, as in the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, is the very rare case that masks the reality of the usual hapless capital defendant and his thin representation.
I am not mocking those who work in this area of law. I too was once involved as an attorney in a capital case, but I was woefully ill-prepared, as were my co-counsels. Thankfully, the introduction of some timely evidence prevented a terrible miscarriage of justice.
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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Phillip M. Thompson is the executive director of Emory University’s Aquinas Center of Theology.