Death penalty comes with too high a price

Freedom New Mexico

“It’s safe to assume we execute innocent people. Are you willing to have your brother, your father, your mother be the sacrificial lamb, to be the innocent person executed so that we can have a death penalty so that we can execute those who are deserving of the death penalty?

“I don’t think society’s mindset is that way now.”

Thus stated state District Judge Kevin Fine of Houston on Thursday in declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. His ruling only applies to his court, and it might or might not influence attorneys and judges in current capital cases. But it’s worth considering.

Fine made the ruling in granting a pretrial motion in the capital murder case of a man accused of robbing and shooting two Houston sisters. One of them died.

In his ruling, the judge noted Illinois’ moratorium on executions and the fact that more than 200 people already on death row have been exonerated. Other states also have stopped executing people over concerns that innocent people could be put to death.

These are good reasons to think yet again about our institutionalized penchant for killing people — especially in Texas, which for years has led the nation in executions by a large margin.

State Attorney General Greg Abbott already has condemned Fine’s ruling and offered to help Harris County’s district attorney appeal it. Analysts expect the appeals will succeed, based on previous court decisions.

Fine’s ruling isn’t like many of those before, which primarily question the methods used in killing condemned inmates, and whether they constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Fine questions the very idea of executing people, with so much evidence that some of those scheduled for death could be innocent. There is no guarantee that their innocence will be determined in time to prevent the execution, just like it appears that some people already have been killed before the exculpatory evidence made it to the courts.

As evidence of wrongful convictions grows, the whole idea of executions deserves a new look. We as a nation need to answer the question if our society is willing to knowingly accept the death of innocent people, just to be able to continue killing people who are guilty. If that is the case, then we have placed a higher value on vengeance than on justice.

Advances in technology and techniques have led to thousands of convictions being overturned — many of those capital murder cases. Those same advances are increasingly being used in initial trials, which could reduce the chance of wrongful convictions.

Will our court system ever get to the point that we can completely eliminate the “oops” factor? We doubt it. Investigators, prosecutors, defenders, judges and juries are just as fallible as the human beings who comprise them, and they always will be. Even the best technology is only as good as the person using it.

But if people decide that our means of gathering, presenting and evaluating evidence, and making and comprehending legal arguments, have become failsafe, then we could once again talk about reimposing the death penalty, and whether it makes sense to commit the same act — the taking of a life — for which we are penalizing the condemned inmates.

One thing is certain, however: We aren’t there yet.