Killing off the death penalty 

On June 21, the state of Florida executed convicted murderer Thomas Provenzano by lethal injection. He had been on death row for more than 16 years, guilty of a grisly 1984 Orange County Court-house shooting spree that killed one man and crippled two others, one of whom has since died. An unemployed electrician with a history of psychological problems, Provenzano had been declared delusional by court-appointed doctors and ruled mentally ill by several judges over the course of his appeals. Curiously, even though he was nuts, he was deemed competent enough to be killed.

Meanwhile in Texas, Gov. George W. Bush presided over the 135th execution of his term in office when his state's parole board refused to stay the execution of Gary Graham, convicted of a 1981 murder. Graham's current legal team asserted that his original court-appointed lawyer, Ronald G. Mock, had failed to mount anything near an adequate defense, noting that Mock barely investigated the case, never called to the stand two eyewitnesses who claimed Graham wasn't the killer, and failed to introduce ballistics evidence that might have exonerated his client. Despite the fact that he had had ineffectual counsel and may have been innocent, on June 22 Gary Graham became the latest human sacrifice to our love affair with state-sanctioned murder.

And yet, because of high-profile and questionable cases like Graham's and Provenzano's, more and more Americans are beginning to question the necessity of a system that all of Western Europe, most of South America and many emerging democracies such as South Africa and Russia -- more than 100 countries in all -- have abolished. A February Gallup poll confirmed that 66 percent of Americans still approve of capital punishment, but that number is sharply down from a high of 80 percent in 1994. In fact, not since the Supreme Court reinstituted the practice in 1976 has the death penalty been so under siege.

In addition to the moral reasoning -- that capital punishment is cruel and unusual by any definition -- opponents have been concentrating their arguments on three key themes for years. First, the actual cost of an execution is substantially higher than the cost of imprisonment. (In Florida, for instance, each execution costs the state $3.2 million -- six times more than incarcerating a prisoner for life). Second, no credible study has produced any solid evidence that the death penalty deters violent crime. (Since 1976, the majority of death-penalty states have had higher murder rates than non-death-penalty states.) Third, the death penalty in America is inherently racist. (A 1990 study found that blacks convicted of killing whites in Florida were five times more likely to receive death sentences than whites convicted of killing whites.)

But the real change in attitudes now seems to be based on the evidence that the system simply doesn't work the way it's supposed to -- that the death penalty is indeed "arbitrary and capricious," as the Supreme Court said in 1972.

Nationwide, 620 people have been executed since 1976. In the same period, 87 condemned prisoners have been exonerated because of new evidence, DNA tests or recanted testimony. That amounts to one reprieve for every seven prisoners executed. In Illinois, Anthony Porter was freed earlier this year when a North-western University journalism class produced the real killer -- 16 years after Porter was found guilty. For at least 23 people executed in this country in this century, though, the discovery of mistakes came too late. They were murdered before they were found not guilty.

A recent Columbia University study of 4,578 death-penalty cases from 1973-95 showed that two-thirds of them were appealed successfully because they were so seriously flawed they had to be done over. The report contended that the capital-punishment system is "collapsing under the weight of its own mistakes."

In Illinois, Gov. George Ryan, a pro-death-penalty Republican, declared a moratorium on capital punishment in his state, citing statistics that showed that 13 Illinois death-row inmates have had their convictions overturned since 1977 -- outnumbering the 12 prisoners the state executed during the same period.

So, though both major party presidential candidates still support capital punishment, as do most Americans, the tide may be turning. It seems increasingly clear that the system is deeply flawed. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once wrote, "Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent." Imagine that.


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