Saturday, 19 December 2009

Death, thou shalt die

News of an excellent trend reaches us from the US. A report by the Death Penalty Information Centre – not a cheerful name, but the organisation’s role is positive – points out that death sentences in the country fell in 2009 for the seventh year running. They are down to 106, under a third of the peak in 1998.

The report suggests that much of the decline is related to the sheer expense of capital punishment, particularly given widespread doubts of its effectiveness as a deterrent. I have to say that I like any argument against the death sentence, but that highly practical consideration doesn’t have quite the nobility of some of the more powerful and more moving objections on moral or philosophical grounds.

Still, the report also suggests that a major consideration has been what I’ve always regarded as the single unanswerable argument against the death penalty: the system sometimes gets it wrong. With nine exonerations of death row inmates in 2009, and a total of 139 since 1973, it seems to get it wrong quite a lot (how many other miscarriages of justice have taken place but not been discovered?)

That’s the nub of the problem. Jail an innocent man for even a short time and you damage his life, perhaps irreparably, but you can at least do something to try to right the wrong – indeed, if we were more generous with compensation and support after release, we could do quite a lot. Kill him and anything you can do is about as useful as saying ‘whoops’.

To me, the most chilling words in the DPIC’s report were:

In Texas, a prominent forensic scientist commissioned by a state legislative panel reported that arson evidence used to convict and sentence Cameron Todd Willingham to death failed to show any crime had been committed. Willingham was executed in 2004.

The man is dead and it’s possible no crime at all was committed. I’m reminded of Mr (later Lord) Justice Donaldson. He presided over the 1975 trial of the Guildford Four, accused of IRA terrorist attacks in Surrey and south London, and expressed regret that they had not been charged with treason, which still carried the death penalty at the time.

In 1989, they were released following conclusive evidence that the police had lied at their original trial and they’d had no part in the bombings for which they’d been sentenced.

It was bad enough that they had been wrongly deprived of so much of their lives. How much worse it would have been, however, had Donaldson been in a position to deprive them of their lives altogether.

Until judges, and indeed juries, can be shown to be infallible there can be no good case for retaining the death penalty. Moral and philosophical considerations aside.

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