Friday, April 17, 2009

COLORADO: On Death Row

Posted by Rick Halperin - APRIL 16, 2009:

Colorado's death penalty is on death row, so to speak, as the Colorado House of Representatives gave tentative approval Wednesday to a plan to end capital punishment and use the money to focus on unsolved cases instead. It's a pragmatic and common-sense proposal, and one that deserves bipartisan support when it proceeds to the Senate.

A dead person is dead, and the outcome can't be reversed. It's an exact science.

The pursuit of truth, by contrast, is an inexact science. Typically, for example, the truth of a murder is known only to the perpetrator and God. A jury doesn't usually know for certain that that person convicted of a crime indeed committed it. A jury must be convinced beyond "reasonable" doubt, not beyond all doubt. Beyond all doubt would be an impossible standard, because all traces of doubt can seldom be eliminated. And sometimes the truth resides in those traces of doubt, even in a criminal justice system that's better than most others around the globe

For that reason alone, we should eliminate the death penalty in Colorado. Convictions get reversed. When they do, those wrongly convicted of crimes can be set free and reparations can be made - unless they are dead. Contemporary science just hasn't found a way to reverse a death sentence once it has been carried out.

Just this month, 55-year-old Nathson Fields became the 131st person in the United States to have a murder conviction overturned after sitting on death row waiting to be killed. Acquittals of wrongfully convicted citizens have become more common with modern developments in forensic science. Modern DNA analysis, for example, has created exculpatory evidence that wasn't available to help suspects in their original trials. Criminologists have also discovered in recent years that juries have given too much credibility to fingerprint analysis in some cases, which can be been flawed by laboratory dishonesty, incompetence, or a combination of both.

Fields was wrongly convicted for a 1984 murder in Illinois. Years later, it was discovered the judge in the first trial took a $10,000 bribe to help alter the outcome. At Fields' retrial, a co-defendant - a man who admitted to killing up to 20 people - testified against Fields in exchange for the promise of a lesser sentence. A judge decided the testimony of a mass murderer working for a lesser sentence might not be high on the credibility scale, so Fields was tried again in a case that resulted in his acquittal on April 8.

Before justice prevailed, Fields spent 20 years in prison and 11-1/2 years on death row. He was wrongly convicted, but at least society hadn't killed him before discovering the mistake.

On rare occasions, a death row inmate is someone comparable to Timothy McVeigh - a person so obviously guilty the space that separates "beyond reasonable doubt" from absolute certainty is microscopically thin. Those convicts are rare, and there's no compelling reason we shouldn't settle for letting them rot in prison to die of old age.

The last time Colorado sought the death penalty, it cost $1.4 million just to prosecute the case. The convict, one contemptible Jose Luis Rubi-Nava, a man convicted of dragging a woman behind a vehicle until she died, ended up pleading guilty in return for a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Had Rubi-Nava been tried in a non-capital punishment case, it would have cost about $70,000 - an enormous savings over $1.4 million.

In a state that has the physical ability to confine murderous monsters until their natural deaths, a penalty of death serves no practical purpose. It merely costs a lot of money, because the process of lawfully killing a person is necessarily complex, lengthy, and full of cumbersome checks and balances. In addition, it needlessly puts the state at risk of someday killing the wrong person.

Rather than waste money on death penalty cases that result in nothing of tangible value to society, we should use the money to solve the growing backlog of more than 1,400 unsolved Colorado murders that have stumped investigators since 1970. Let's stop wasting big money on a few occasional death row inmates, and use it to obtain convictions instead. Doing so could bring comfort and peace to Coloradans still waiting for justice and closure after the loss of their loved ones.

(source: Opinion, Colorado Springs Gazette)

No comments: