Death no more: It's time to end capital punishment
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Ernest Ray Willis set a fire that killed two women in Pecos County. So
Texas prosecutors who obtained a conviction in 1987 and sent Mr. Willis
death row. But it wasn't true.
Seventeen years later, a federal judge overturned the conviction,
prosecutors had drugged Mr. Willis with powerful anti-psychotic
during his trial and then used his glazed appearance to characterize
"cold-hearted." They also suppressed evidence and introduced neither
proof nor eyewitnesses in the trial – and his court-appointed lawyers
a lousy defense. Besides, another death-row inmate confessed to the
The state dropped all charges. Ernest Ray Willis emerged from prison a
But he was lucky: He had his life. Not so Carlos De Luna, who was
1989 for the stabbing death of a single mother who worked at a gas
For years, another man with a history of violent crimes bragged that he
committed the crime. The case against Mr. De Luna, in many eyes, does
stand up to closer examination.
There are signs he was innocent. We don't know for sure, but we do know
if the state made a mistake, nothing can rectify it.
And that uncomfortable truth has led this editorial board to re-examine
century-old stance on the death penalty. This board has lost confidence
the state of Texas can guarantee that every inmate it executes is truly
of murder. We do not believe that any legal system devised by
flawed human beings can determine with moral certainty the guilt of
defendant convicted of murder.
That is why we believe the state of Texas should abandon the death
because we cannot reconcile the fact that it is both imperfect and
Flaws in the capital criminal justice system have bothered troubled us
some timeyears. We have editorialized in favor of clearer instructions
juries, better counsel for defendants, the overhaul of forensic labs
restrictions on the execution of certain classes of defendant. We have
lawmakers to at least put in place a moratorium, as other states have,
closely examine the system.
And yet, despite tightening judicial restrictions and growing concern,
exonerations keep coming, and the doubts keep piling up without any
From our vantage point in Dallas County, the possibility of tragic,
error in the death chamber appears undeniable. We have seen a parade of
walk out of the prison system after years – even decades – of
crimes they didn't commit. Though not death penalty cases, these
including an exoneration just last week – reveal how shaky
techniques and reliance on eyewitnesses can derail the lives of the
The Tulia and the fake-drug scandals have also eroded public confidence
justice system. These travesties illustrate how greed and bigotry can
It's hard to believe that such pervasive human failings have never
the death of an innocent man.
In 2001, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "If statistics
any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent
defendants to be
Some death penalty supporters acknowledge that innocents may have been
yet be executed, but they argue that serving the greater good is worth
that unfortunate outcome. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argues
Byzantine appeals process effectively sifts innocent convicts from the
mass of guilty, and killing the small number who fall through is a risk
willing to live with. According to polls, most Texans are, too. But
editorial board is not.
Justice Scalia calls these innocents "an insignificant minimum." But
minimum is not insignificant to the unjustly convicted death-row
inmate. It is
not insignificant to his or her family. The jurist's verbiage
marks a transgression against the Western moral tradition, which
both the value of the individual and the wrongness of making an
suffer for the supposed good of the whole. Shedding innocent blood has
scandal since Cain slew Abel – a crime for which, the Bible says, God
the murderer, who remained under harsh judgment.
This newspaper's death penalty position is based not on sympathy for
murderers – who, many most agree, deserve to die for their crimes –
in the conviction that not even the just dispatch of 10, 100, or 1,000
these wretches can remove the stain of innocent blood from our common
This is especially true given that our society can be adequately
killers using bloodless means. In 2005, the Legislature gave juries the
of sentencing killers to life without parole.
The state holds in its hands the power of life and death. It is an
power, one that citizens of a democracy must approach in fear and
and in full knowledge that the state's justice system, like everything
humanity touches, is fated to fall short of perfection. If we are
err in matters of life and death, it is far better to err on the side
mercycaution. It is far better to err on the side of life. The state
impose death – an irrevocable sentence – with absolute certainty in
Therefore the state should not impose it at all.
Labels: dallas morning news, death penalty