Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Turn: Why I’m rethinking support for the death penalty

The following opinion by Tony Soltani was published in the Concord (NH) Monitor on November 17, 2013.

New Hampshire has a limited death penalty law – a strict one, with many safeguards. It applies to first-degree premeditated murders with aggravating circumstances. As a former state representative, I voted for that law more than once, although never enthusiastically.

Now I’m rethinking those votes.

We have relatively few such first-degree murders in the state. We have not used the death penalty since 1939 and have used it sparingly since the 18th century. A jury must convict and then find sufficient aggravating circumstances to justify an execution. A judge must confirm the sentence, and a mandatory appeal will follow, with several discretionary and collateral challenges. Unlike in states such as Texas, the governor has authority to commute to life imprisonment or stay an execution. The many safeguards, the narrow scope of the law and the low frequency of crimes sanctionable by death gave me some assurance. I wanted the best of both worlds: the established deterrent value of the law on the books (which applies not to crimes of passion but to those with premeditation) along with the hopes of never applying it.

I am dedicated to the cause of life. Seldom would a crime fit the law, hardly ever would a prosecutor seek it, even more seldom would a jury administer it and no governor would ever allow an execution. After all, no governor with political ambitions from either political party would want to be the first to sign a death warrant since 1939.

That was my thought process. My good friends, Democratic Rep. Jack Pratt of Walpole to my left and Republican Rep. Loren Jean of Litchfield to my right insisted that I was wrong. Years later, a few things have changed which have me questioning my votes.

First, we now have a man on death row in New Hampshire. His actions hardly evoke sympathy; nevertheless, he is human, and taking a human life in a sterile, clinical and controlled setting degrades the human family. For those of us with religious beliefs, it has the undertone of challenging our creator’s supremacy, taking what is only God’s to give and take.

Second, Project Innocence happened. Hundreds of innocent persons, some men, some women, have been proven not guilty after having been condemned to death.

Finally, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report on forensic sciences in 2009, commissioned by Congress. The findings were disturbing, to say the least.

The great reliance on “forensic sciences” has been misplaced all along. Hair and fiber, ballistics, fingerprints, bite mark analysis, blood splatter, even radar use, are troublingly closer to arts than sciences.

All that I spent days and hours learning is nothing more than junk science. I have no artistic aptitude. The only shining light in forensics is the fairly new technology of DNA, with the proviso that samples are collected properly, stored and transported properly, analyzed properly, and the statistical component is calculated properly. That composite science of biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics has set nearly every innocent free on the initiative of the Innocence Project.

I know I could never serve as executioner. My conscience is deeply troubled for allowing anyone to serve in that capacity in this sacred land in my name. The foreboding words of Pratt and Jean haunt me.

(Tony Soltani is a former Republican state representative from Epsom, NH.)