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Discussing the morality of capital punishment

By Seth SternStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 2003

Few debates are more emotional than a discussion on the morality of capital punishment. Yet the topic is also one that's been subject to marked shifts in public opinion in recent decades. In the 1970s, use of the death penalty in the US seemed on its way out, only to swing sharply back into favor in the 1980s and '90s.

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But now, segments of public opinion are undergoing another change, due in part to revelations about innocent defendants on death row.

It was the examination of this phenomenon - the assignment of death sentences to those innocent of the crimes of which they are accused - that caused two writers whose careers began in criminal justice to rethink their own views about the death penalty.

Author Scott Turow worked as a federal prosecutor before writing his first bestselling novel and representing death penalty inmates on appeal.

In his most recent legal assignment, he served on a commission appointed by the governor of Illinois to examine the state's death penalty law.

He reflects on the experience in his new book, "Ultimate Punishment" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Mark Fuhrman, best known as a detective in the O.J. Simpson case, focused on Oklahoma's capital punishment record in "Death and Justice" (William Morrow).

Excerpts of the Monitor's interviews with each author follow.

Q: Even while representing death-row defendants, you wrote that you were agnostic on the death penalty? What did you mean?

ST: I could never make up my mind. I was against it. I was for it. Finally, I decided I didn't know what to think.

Q: How did your work on the Illinois governor's commission change your view on capital punishment?

ST: It allowed me to look at the system as a whole instead of focusing on individual cases. Instead of asking whether the death penalty is just in this case or that case, I had to ask whether the system could administer the death penalty in a way that was fair, just, and accurate. Looking at the entire system was a revelation.

I learned I was looking at the wrong question. The real question is, 'Can you construct a death penalty that only reaches the right cases without bringing in the wrong cases - the cases where people are innocent or undeserving?

The more I came to understand the dynamics of that system, the more I began to realize the answer is no, we'll never do it.

Q: Why not?

ST: We'll never do it because we want something from capital punishment that we don't want from any other crime.

We want the death penalty solely for symbolic purposes to vindicate our own view of what is just. For that reason, there is no margin for error.

It's probably no revelation to say we have innocent people convicted of lesser offenses. Naturally, we find it deplor- able, but we're not going to junk the criminal justice system.

The sad fact that it takes place with the death penalty is more alarming because there is no tangible benefit except for the symbolic importance to the public and victims' families. We can get the same benefits from putting them in prisons for the rest of their lives.

Q: What's the result if a state enacts all the fixes your commission proposed in Illinois?

ST: It will unquestionably give us a better death-penalty system that gives us fewer mistakes and is somewhat less arbitrary.