We Should Not Kill
A national conference considers legalistic details of the death penalty. The larger debate remains unheard.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Willie Williams spent 22 years, half of his life, on Death Row in a Georgia prison. Three weeks ago, on Jan. 23, he was released after DNA evidence proved beyond a doubt that he did not commit the rape for which he was convicted in 1985.
That same day, Roy Brown was released from prison in New York after serving 15 years for a murder that he did not commit. Again, DNA tests showed that he could not have committed the crime.
The Innocence Project, which helped both of these men win their freedom, reports that 196 Death Row inmates have been exonerated in the 34 years since DNA evidence was first accepted by US courts. In each of these cases, an innocent person had been found guilty of a felony crime by a jury and sentenced by a judge. In many cases, appellate courts had upheld the conviction and the death sentence, which carries a heavy burden of proof. In every case, the juries and judges were wrong.
“This was an instance of someone dying because of a technicality.”
Andrew Love, a public defender in San Francisco who has litigated death penalty cases for 18 years, says these reversals demonstrate one reason why the death penalty should be abandoned. They show that the legal system is imperfect, that the eyewitness testimonies and forced confessions that lead to convictions and harsh sentences are not 100 percent reliable, and can lead to innocent people being executed.
“It’s a completely arbitrary system,” he says. “It often comes down to who has the worst trial lawyer, not who has committed the worst crime.”
Love will be in Monterey this week along with 1,200 other lawyers to participate in a national colloquium on the death penalty, the Capital Case Defense Seminar. A member of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the California Public Defenders Association, he co-chaired the organizing committee for the event, which is aimed at examining legal rather than political aspects of the issue. His opinions about the topic are his own.
Love opposes the death penalty for the same reasons that many laypeople do. He cites the fact that the United States is the only democracy in the world that executes people, points to statistics that indicate a racial bias as well as evidence of a broader unfairness, and appeals to the basic argument that killing is wrong. But his deepest feelings about the subject seem to be rooted in the fact that he has represented defendants who face the death penalty, and recognized them as human beings who deserve to live.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve seen that these are all people,” he says. “All of them, every one of them, has been victimized since birth. Whatever it is that they may have done, the idea that the state would kill them after everything that’s happened to them is just wrong.”
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The one case that stands out in Love’s memory is the one that he lost. He represented a man named Tom Thompson, who was appealing a death sentence after having been convicted of the rape and murder of a woman in Orange County in 1995. Love was convinced that Thompson’s defense attorney had blown the case. He was able to convince an appellate court that the evidence against Thompson was spurious, and the sentence was overturned. But following a complicated series of events that eventually brought the case to the US Supreme Court, the death sentence was upheld, and Thompson was executed in 1998.
Love still has strong feelings about it. “It was incredibly unfair,” he says. “Regardless of all of the other cases I’ve been involved with, which you might call victories, this is the one I think about.”
After we spoke on Tuesday, Love sent me the appellate court ruling that threw out the death sentence. It contains a strongly worded opinion, written by a member of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, that illustrates the fact that our system of justice is a deeply human institution, and, to my way of thinking, therefore prone to error. It includes the following passage, which refers to a crucial prosecution witness: “Counsel also failed to discover that informant had served as informant since age of fourteen, that two police agencies for whom he informed considered him unreliable, and that his family considered him to be pathological liar.”
Looking back at the case, Love is convinced that his client lost because of a “technicality.” He says the Supreme Court decided the case on a legalistic matter rather than on merit.
“You hear about people getting off on a technicality,” he says. “This was an instance of someone dying because of a technicality.”
There are 3,344 inmates on Death Row—657 in California. For the most part, politicians have gone silent on the issue. It is likely that while we ignore this situation, people who don’t deserve to die will die, because we will kill them.