Friday, September 04, 2009

Byron Williams: Time to do away with the death penalty

The following op-ed was published in the Oakland (California) Tribune on September 3, 2009.


Byron Williams: Time to do away with the death penalty
Contributing columnist

REGARDLESS OF where you come down on the death penalty, Cameron Todd Willingham is a name you should not forget. In this week's New Yorker, investigative reporter David Grann writes a very convincing article that Willingham, who was executed by the state of Texas in 2004, was most likely an innocent man.

Willingham was convicted of murdering his three children by setting fire to his wood-frame house in Corsicana, Texas.

The first problem Willingham faced was an inability to afford legal representation. Death rows across the country are filled with those who must rely on public defenders.

After reading Willingham's story in The New Yorker, one can't help but ask, at a minimum, have innocent people been executed?

It is a question death-penalty advocates are unable to address without sinking to the depths of the gruesome and barbaric. Since it is impossible to avoid error, the only way one can support the death penalty is to suggest that we have expendable portions of society.

That may sound over-the-top, but what else could explain supporting a policy that is costly, inefficient, economically subjective and, if carried out, offers no adequate recourse should the ultimate mistake be made?

There is no dependable data that proves the death penalty saves lives, as some would suggest. But it has been proven that capital punishment is more costly than life without the possibility of parole because of the expensive appeal process. This leaves some death-penalty advocates to suggest limiting the appeal process.

This option — which is a proven applause line on the campaign trail — reveals the extent to which some people are willing to go to maintain a system that does not work.

Anyone who cavalierly recommends reducing the appeal process is, in effect, arguing on behalf of the best way to ensure more innocent people are put to death.

Since 1976, more than 130 individuals on death row have been exonerated. DNA testing, which was developed in the 1980s, has definitely changed the dynamics. But DNA testing is used sparingly.

Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate prisoners, estimates that roughly 80 percent of felonies do not involve biological evidence.

In 2000, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan exonerated 13 individuals on death row and then suspended the state's death penalty. Ryan had been a longtime advocate of capital punishment, but he declared that he could no longer support a system that has "come so close to the ultimate nightmare — the state's taking of innocent life."

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has said that the "execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event." But our continued support of the death penalty suggests that it is not intolerable.

A majority of Californians still favor the death penalty, but a new public-opinion poll by UC Professor Craig Haney reveals that support for capital punishment has eroded significantly since 1989, the last time a detailed statewide survey on the topic was conducted.

Sixty-six percent of 800 respondents in the new poll expressed support for the death penalty, compared to 79 percent in 1989.

Haney's findings are consistent with the findings of a recent statewide Field Poll that asked one question about capital punishment. Sixty-seven percent of respondents to that survey support the death penalty, the Field Poll found.

The proportion of adult Californians who view themselves as "strong" supporters of the death penalty has dropped from 50 percent in 1989 to 38 percent today. Conversely, fewer than 9 percent were "strongly opposed" to capital punishment 20 years ago, compared to 21 percent today.

"These changes appear to be related to changes in the way Californians view the system of death sentencing, rather than just the punishment itself," said Haney.

It is easy to parse out the most heinous crimes as Exhibit A as to why we need to maintain the death penalty. Public policy, however, cannot be based on the exception.

Continued support of a system that can possibly execute an innocent person means there is an error percentage higher than zero that one is willing to live with. If there can be no perfect system, why not discontinue the barbarity?

That way, on the rare occasion that an innocent person is wrongfully convicted, there remains the possibility of proving that person's innocence while that person is still alive.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and columnist for Bay Area News Group-East Bay. E-mail him at or leave a message at 510-208-6417.

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