Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pondering Capital Punishment*

September 7th, 2009

I read an article today in the New Yorker called Trial By Fire, and I have to say it moved me. The article is about Cameron Todd Willingham, a man convicted of homicide by means of arson. His three infant daughters died in a fire in December of 1991 in Corsicana, Texas, and Willingham was accused of intentionally setting the fire. Willingham was sentenced to the death penalty, which was carried out in early 2004.

Willingham insisted upon his innocence from the day of the fire right up until his death, which is listed as “homicide” on his death certificate. Before his case went to trial, he was offered a plea bargain. Pleading guilty would have resulted in a lifelong sentence in prison, but he insisted on his innocence and refused to plead guilty. His neighbors, the police, the firefighters, and even his lawyers had decided he was guilty long before he went to trial; the guilty verdict was basically a foregone conclusion.

It appeared open-and-shut to the public, despite the lack of a motive, and only later inquiries showed the many weaknesses of the prosecution’s case. Indeed, even after many of these came to light before Willingham’s execution, several appeals courts and other means to achieve stays of execution continued to overlook the gaping holes in his conviction. I cannot sufficiently convey the feelings evoked by the article, but I can convey the ultimate effect it had on me.

My opinion on capital punishment is not something I typically share, but I considerate it a rather moderate view. In the vast majority of cases I feel that capital punishment is too extreme, but there are a small number of offenses in which the death penalty is conceivably appropriate (these being only the most heinous and cold-blooded of murders: the best example being serial killings). Ideologically, my opinion is that some people deserve to die for their crimes.

Today, my opinion diverged from itself. As I read the article, I realized the truth is that while some crimes truly deserve to be punished by death, we cannot possibly allow the death penalty if there are cases in which innocent people are wrongfully convicted. You cannot take back taking someone’s life, and this case study did more to affect my opinion than any argument consisting of racial statistics, costs of capital punishment or the wrongfulness of taking a life. If even once a death sentence has been carried out against an innocent man in our modern society, it is too many times.

Our justice system (indeed, every justice system in the world) needs to be reevaluated and changed. Until that happens, the death penalty should be entirely suspended. Operatively this has led me to agree with the argument for abolishment of capital punishment. When could we ever be sure that an innocent person absolutely could not be convicted? Therefore should we not take the possibility of killing an innocent person entirely off the table?

*this is not actually my title, the opinion editor of the Dickinsonian picked it.