Doubt and the death penalty

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Next month, the state of Arkansas is scheduled to execute eight convicted murderers in 11 days after not executing any since 2005 because of legal challenges and difficulties obtaining the drugs. On Tuesday, legislators considered three bills that would make executions less likely to happen or not at all.

Well, “considered” is too strong a word. “Listened to presentations about” in the House Judiciary Committee would be more accurate, because the bills were never going to pass. While polls by Opinion Research Associates show Arkansans’ support for the death penalty has slipped since 2002 – from 77 percent then to 67 percent in 2014 – it’s still favored by a strong majority of Arkansans and probably a stronger majority of legislators, including one committee member, Rep. Rebecca Petty, R-Rogers, whose daughter was murdered.

Two of the bills were presented by Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff – the first bill to abolish the death penalty entirely, and the second to ban applying it to those with a serious mental illness. After a lengthy discussion, Flowers pulled the first to make a technical correction, but it’s not going anywhere. The bill banning it for the mentally ill failed on a forceful “no” voice vote.

Among the arguments made by Flowers and her witnesses is that the system is wrong too often to trust it with something as final as death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 157 death row inmates across the nation have been exonerated and released since 1973, on average after 11 years on death row. (None are from Arkansas, including West Memphis’ Damien Echols, presumably because the type of plea deal he accepted did not make him technically “innocent.”) Meanwhile, 1,448 people have been executed nationwide since 1976.

It’s beyond a reasonable doubt that innocent individuals have been executed. And that leads us to the third bill that committee members listened to a presentation about. House Bill 1798 by Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, would have made one small change to existing law: Where the sentence of death would be applied, the words “beyond a reasonable doubt” would be replaced with “beyond any doubt.”

“If we’re going to be cutting someone’s life short, we should be absolutely sure that that person is guilty beyond any doubt of the crime that we’re executing them for,” he said.

That bill never had a chance, either. Bob McMahan, the state’s prosecutor coordinator, said “beyond any doubt” is an impossible standard to reach. Again, the voice vote was overwhelmingly “no.”

It should be emphasized that Blake’s bill would not abolish the death penalty, but instead raise the standard for applying it. Executions could still occur for someone like Dylann Roof, who in 2015 sat through a Bible study in a South Carolina church and then repaid the warm welcome he’d received from its African-American members by murdering nine of them. There’s no doubt at all in that case. We know he did it. In fact, he’s proud of it.

But the death penalty would not be an option in cases where the puzzle pieces merely fit so well that a jury must conclude the guy did it. At least 157 times since 1973, the pieces seemed to fit, but the jury got it wrong.

The death penalty is one of those issues where emotions run high and where people tend to be segregated into two camps. Reasonable people get mad at each other, quickly, on this one.

But on this issue, almost all of us are on the same team. It’s us against the murderers. Death penalty supporters and opponents should agree that, for the most serious crimes, the prison system’s job is no longer to rehabilitate, but only to exact justice, deter others, and ensure the offender can’t kill anyone else. The only argument would be whether to kill Dylann Roof quickly or lock him up while he dies slowly – preferably, as one reader suggested, with images of his victims staring at him from his cell walls.

Blake’s bill, dead this session, would err on the side of certainty lest the state, in all our names, irredeemably insert the needle in the wrong person’s arm. It’s not unreasonable.

5 thoughts on “Doubt and the death penalty

  1. Too bad we’re lagging behind Europe, where capital punishment was outlawed years ago in every country except Belarus.

  2. That’s right, Ron West. As you probably know, he commuted their sentences to life shortly before he left office and then visited them on Death Row. He would be liberal in many ways even for today’s Democrats – certainly in Arkansas.

  3. As a 2 time “guest” of the state and having been chewed up and spit out by our legal system, this issue runs deeper than most know. First, I’m for having a death penalty. 2nd, I’d rarely use it. The WORST punishment we can give someone is Life W/O Parole. Death is an easy escape. Life in a pressure cooker with no hope in a place full of hate and evil, added to by the incompetence and corruption of ADC? Give me death anytime over that.

    Second, prosecutors use death as the stick to get plea bargains to much longer sentences without the EXPENSE of a trial. Happened to a buddy of mine. I was shocked after reading the motion and discovery that he took a plea bargain because it’s not a solid case against him. They said death or 50′ years. He said he didn’t want sit in a tiny box for the next decade waiting on appeal. I don’t blame him.

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