The death penalty is too much power for a government to have. There are many crimes so cruel that I would happily kill the perpetrator myself (or so I’d like to think – I’ve never even held a gun), so the cruelty of the punishment is not my objection. The problem for me is that no government should be able to kill its own citizens.
One problem with governments is that they make mistakes, lots of them, every single day. They are, after all, giant bureaucracies, and that includes law enforcement – the police, the prosecutors, the judiciary. And of course governments are made up of individuals, all of whom have their own motives and limitations. Put it all together and it is clear why our governments (state and federal) execute innocent people.
Since 1989, 254 people sentenced to death have been exonerated by DNA evidence. http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Facts_on_PostConviction_DNA_Exonerations.php. And that number doesn’t account for the innocent people who don’t have any DNA evidence or who can’t get a new hearing. A Columbia Law School professor conducted a study that found that 68% of death sentences were overturned as legally erroneous – and that number doesn’t account for the wrongful convictions where there was no clear or reversible legal error in the trial, though the outcome was still wrong. http://www.truthinjustice.org/68percent.htm.
Yesterday one convict got an unusual chance for a new hearing after 20 years on death row. Witnesses testified that they had lied during his original trial: some say that police pressured them into it, while one just had a grudge against the defendant. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100623/ap_on_re_us/us_georgia_execution_hearing.
There are many other reasons innocent people are sentenced to death. There are prosecutors who act unethically because they need a win for career reasons, police who muck with evidence or strong-arm witnesses because they want to see someone punished for an appalling crime, public defenders too overwhelmed by enormous case loads to properly defend their clients, and appellate courts who refuse to give the defendant a second chance even if his lawyer was drunk for part of the trial or didn’t even show up for court.
Most individuals involved in law enforcement in every capacity are doing the best they can and doing it ethically. But it only takes a few who aren’t to kill an innocent person.
Even if no innocent person were ever sentenced to death I would still oppose the death penalty because I don’t want to live under a government that can kill me. I vote for government workers, I pay their salaries, I (we) am the reason for their very existence. Their power comes from the citizenry, and as a member of the citizenry I do not grant them the power to kill me.
There are many other arguments against the death penalty: that it’s merciful compared to a lifetime behind bars; that it is many times more costly than imprisoning a convict for life; that it does not work as an effective deterrent. For me, though, it comes down to whether our government should control whether we live or die. I strongly believe in the necessity of government regulation in many areas, but giving the government the power to kill its own citizens is several steps too far.