Thursday, September 29, 2011

Our broken death penalty

Last week, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia. This tragic event, despite the longevity of the events leading up to its conclusion and the focus it has drawn from the media and pop culture, is not by definition an unusual one.

Despite the fact that most Americans like to think of our justice system as being very thorough, especially when it comes to something as final as the death penalty, the fact is that there are too many who have slipped through the cracks. Nationwide, 138 people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death, including six in Pennsylvania, and some have been exonerated after their executions.

During the prosecution process there are too many outside elements that can interfere with the jury’s understanding of the case, leading to wrongful conviction. The largest of these interferences is eyewitness misidentification, which accounts for 75% of the wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing, and played a major part in Troy Davis’ prosecution. Social science research has proven that the human brain does not have the ability to record events like a camera and is often quite malleable. Thus eyewitness testimony is often extremely inaccurate.

Playing a smaller, though no-less important, part in wrongful conviction is that of Forensic Science misconduct, which, though less talked-about, is slightly more nefarious. Though DNA evaluation has been examined again and again to prove its truthfulness, many other techniques used in the crime lab, such as hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, fire arm tool mark analysis and shoe print analysis, have received no such examination and are therefore subject to occasional tampering. Other tampering, such as contamination of a crime scene and the planting of evidence can play a part.

Another factor, which may come as a surprise, but plays a no less substantial role, is that of false confessions. People who are being interrogated may in fact have many reasons to confess to a crime that they did not commit, which for mentally-incapable adults may include extreme interrogation lengths and being placed under other forms of duress by law enforcement. However, children and those who are mentally ill are often more likely to falsely confess due to a misunderstanding of the situation or an attempt to please authority figures.

Aside from the transgressions that can occur during the prosecution process, there are several large issues outside the courtroom that must be addressed. The common thought is that it is less expensive to put a prisoner to death than it is to keep them in prison. Contrary to this thought,
recent studies seem to show that the death penalty is much more expensive than even life without parole. The lengthy conviction process, the cost of keeping prisoners on death row, as well as that of taxpayer-funded public defenders, all add up to a hefty bill. In fact, the majority of prisoners on death row are among the population too destitute to afford a private attorney, which in addition to the cost to the taxpayer for a public defender, often adds up to a poor defense.

Finally, the last issue at hand is the toughest; that of race. In the state I live, Pennsylvania, nearly 70% of those sentenced to die are members of a racial or ethnic minority. Sadly, this is the case across the country. This is not a reflection of which races are more likely to commit violent crime. It is unfortunately a reflection of which races our justice system are more willing to prosecute and which races our juries are willing to sentence to die.

In a society oriented toward retribution, advocating for the abolishment of the death penalty can be extremely difficult. When presented with these facts, however, more way be willing to reevaluate their views and be ready to accept an end to this still-instinctive aspect of our justice system.

Evan Stultz, ACLU-PA volunteer, Harrisburg

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