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Jewish World Review May 31, 2002 / 20 Sivan 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Reasonable doubts about executions

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | KANSAS CITY, Mo. I was in a conference room here at my office the other day watching a videotape about a Missouri death penalty case when Kansas Gov. Bill Graves came in to meet with our editorial board.

Graves wanted to talk about the budget mess his state then found itself in and about his frustration at being unable to round up enough votes to solve it.

I shut off the TV, pulled out the tape and told the governor that as bad as his budget woes were, at least he wasn't having to decide what to do in a terribly difficult death penalty case.

Graves acknowledged the relief he felt that in his time in office he had not had to decide whether a death-row inmate lived or died. Nor will he have to decide that before he leaves office next year. Having the ultimate say on whether a prisoner dies, he said, has to be the worst part of a governor's job - whether one is for or against capital punishment.

In fact, one of the many reasons I oppose the death penalty is that it places in the hands of fallible human beings an irrevocable decision that can cut off the future for someone who is innocent of the crime. That's exactly the position of people pleading the case of Joseph Amrine, convicted of the 1985 stabbing death of a fellow prisoner at Missouri State Penitentiary (now Jefferson City Correctional Center).

The Amrine matter is fascinating. It's another example of the kinds of controversial cases that should cause proponents of capital punishment to acknowledge that the way our judicial system works in death penalty cases is indefensible.

I don't want to focus here on just that case, however, because the reason to abolish capital punishment goes far beyond questions of tainted and recanted testimony the Amrine case raises. And it goes beyond Missouri.

Earlier this year, a commission in Illinois reported that its 14 members were "unanimous in the belief that no system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death."

Since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1977, Illinois has freed 13 death-row inmates after acknowledging that the wrong men had been convicted. Imagine that. Then imagine how many other states may have executed innocent people.

Whenever I write about capital punishment, I hear from readers who say I'm soft on crime and in favor of letting malicious criminals go free. It's a ridiculous conclusion. I'm not against bringing people to justice, not against them paying for their crimes, not against keeping some dangerous criminals locked up until they die, not against any system that's fair both to those charged with crimes and to victims of crimes.

I want victims and their families and friends to believe justice was done. I also want states, on behalf of their citizens, to have the chance to reclaim and redeem the wasted lives of criminals. I'm against the defective system that in Illinois alone put at least 13 innocent people on death row. And I'm against retributive justice that seeks not restitution and redemption but only revenge.

That's one of the many things wrong with the death penalty. Not only does the system occasionally kill the wrong person, but even when the right person is executed, it closes off any possibility for rehabilitation or even eventual reconciliation with the victim's families and friends.

About 3,700 people are on death row in the 38 states that allow the death penalty. Included among them, no doubt, are some evil people who should be kept away from the public until they die. But just for the sake of argument, let's say juries have convicted the true criminal in 99 percent of those cases. (Do we ever do anything right 99 percent of the time?) That still would leave 37 innocent persons waiting to die.

I don't know whether Joe Amrine is among them, though his supporters make a compelling case. What I can tell you is that I'm ashamed of a system that leaves itself open to such preventable and atrocious error. It doesn't have to be this way.


JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.


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