Europeans despise us for it, religious leaders decry it, politicians hang their careers on it. The death penalty is part of the American landscape. And it’s just plain wrong.
So argues Kurtis, anchor of the A&E series American Justice, who has been on hand to report on some of the uglier capital crimes of the recent past: the Manson murders, Richard Speck’s killing spree, John Wayne Gacy’s slaughter of 20 young men. “Through these cases,” he writes, “I learned there is true evil in the world, personified by predators who prey on the unsuspecting.” Yet, in a species of what he recognizes as the peripeteia of classical tragedy—“the moment when you realize all you have believed is wrong”—he has come to disavow his long-standing belief in the righteousness and efficacy of the death penalty. So, too, did former Illinois governor George Ryan, who reviewed the books and discovered that half the capital cases in his state had been reversed and that the lawyers for nearly three dozen death-row inmates “had later been disbarred or at some point suspended from practicing law.” Incompetent or corrupt lawyers are only part of the problem, Kurtis writes, turning to an in-depth analysis of two recent cases, one in Arizona and the other in Pennsylvania, where heinous murders were ascribed to apparently well-suited suspects and then, after agonizingly long periods of review, were revealed to have been sentenced to death through faulty evidence on one hand, a poor jury on the other, and razzle-dazzle lawyering on both, “which can tip the scales of justice.” Supporters of capital punishment may reasonably object that Kurtis’s sample set is too small to offer anything more than anecdotal evidence, but he closes with a fine lectern-shaking set of proofs that, among other things, the death penalty is not a deterrent to homicide (“Too much time has been wasted on this argument”), is too expensive (it’s cheaper to incarcerate than to kill), and is unequally applied across states and ethnic and class lines.
Points well-made, well-taken, and well-worthy of discussion.