Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Challenge of Society Doing the Right Thing

I'm obviously a little late to the party as far as the 2004 execution of Cameron Willingham is concerned.

With the commission chosen to investigate the prospects of having put to death an innocent man, it will certainly bring out zealots both pro and con regarding the death penalty. But my experience with meeting men who have been wrongly convicted is what makes me think that, as a society, we need to be extremely judicious with how we determine that neither rehabilitation, or punishment are suitable consequences for crime.

There certainly are cases that make one want to call for execution. There are some crimes so heinous and some convicted criminals who are so unrepentent in the face of their crimes, that the natural human reaction is to want them out of the way for good. And there may even be instances when not even the complete conversion of the convicted are not sufficient cause for something less than capital punishment. Frankly, the answer may be a moratorium on executions.

Those of you who know me and some of you who have read this blog for awhile may know, my family has been touched by murder. Our family has consistently said that we want neither the death penalty or life imprisonment for the person who took our son's life. But, while still awaiting the trial and while approaching the second anniversary of his death, I can certainly understand someone in a similar circumstance (or worse), feeling differently. In our case, however, we actually know who committed the crime and there is no question that they committed the act.

In cases where one has to rely upon eyewitness testimony which is being proven time and time again to be considered dangerously subjective; in situations where forensic evidence is not the part of a scrupulous investigation and when there is the passions and prejudices that are associated with certain crimes are allowed to come into play, or where the personality of the defendent is not particularly sterling, society must proceed with an unusual caution before it determines to deprive someone of his or her life.

When one considers the judicial system's aversion to admitting a mistake (see the response of the chief prosecutor in Willingham's case), one has to avoid at all costs the 'well he may not be guilty of this, but he had to be guilty of something; he was a bad actor', response to the prospect that Willingham is probably not guilty of the crime for which he was executed. Being an insufferable human being is not a capital offense.

If the state has to admit that, it has to apologize to the Willingham family; it owes the Willingham family every appropriate and conceivable effort to clear his name and it owes the Willingham family compensation. And citizens of Texas have to know that nothing that it does will ever be enough to right the wrong of taking a man's life wrongfully.

To the degree that any of us believe in capital punishment is the ultimate form of societal justice. We are saying, 'This person has forgeited the right to live among us.' We must be certain that we are not just saying that to the poor, to minorities and to those who are vulnerable to the whims of men and women who may wield judicial power without compassion, restraint or rigourous personal and official deliberation.

The stakes are far too high and "We're sorry" far too insufficient...

Barry Scheck, Innocence Project co-director has it right, "It's not just possible to improve forensic science in this country -- it's imperative. If Cameron Todd Willingham's case teaches us nothing else, it should make improving the reliability of our criminal justice system a top priority nationwide. It's not enough to feel bad that an innocent man was executed; we must use this moment to do better."

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