Death-Penalty Mistakes

Paul Hill, an antiabortion terrorist and murderer, was killed by the state of Florida last Wednesday. His actions were profoundly wrong and his crime heinous. But his execution, like those that occur on an almost weekly basis across the United States, did nothing to advance the cause of justice.

The death penalty is much in the news these days. In a controversial move, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week threw out the death sentences of more than 100 prisoners in Arizona, Idaho, and Montana. The defendants were sentenced to death by a judge instead of a jury.

The appellate judges relied on a Supreme Court ruling that such sentencing procedure violated the constitutional right to a jury trial. But they went a step further, making the ruling retroactive, an issue the high court didn't address. An appeal to the Supreme Court is almost certain, especially since appellate courts in two other circuits have ruled the opposite. Even if the Ninth Circuit's ruling were upheld, juries in the three states could still reimpose capital punishment in most of the cases, after new hearings.

Then there's the parade of convicted men found innocent after being sentenced to death, often years after their trial - sometimes on the figurative eve of execution. Advances in DNA analysis of crime-scene evidence - or unbiased outside investigation after conviction - make it clear the men suffered serious miscarriages of justice.

This raises the question of whether any defendants have been executed before these recent scientific advances were available to prove their innocence. Or whether they were wrongly executed because no DNA evidence was - or is - available. Or how many people were convicted because of racism, or an incompetent lawyer, or flawed legal systems in states like those in Texas and Virginia. Such questions so disturbed outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) last year that he commuted the death sentences of 167 prisoners.

At its root, the motivation behind the death penalty is vengeance, not justice. It's a motive unworthy of a civilized society, the state, or victims' relatives. Those who support the penalty say procedures can be improved to ensure it is fairly imposed.

That will save the lives of more unjustly convicted prisoners. But capital punishment will still be wrong, no matter how perfect it is.

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