An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.  - Gandhi

Tulsa World publishes LTE about Death Penalty Myths

Board Member Dane Gill had a letter to the editor published in the Tulsa World, describing some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding the death penalty. Here is the letter as submitted:

August 26, 2009

Dear Editor and Readers,

There is very little information disseminated with regard to the misconceptions regarding the death penalty. I would like to quote a few facts concerning the most popular myths on this topic (excerpts from Equal Justice USA pamphlet, Brooklyn New York, 2009).

Myth 1: Victims’ families begin healing when the defendant’s sentence is capital punishment.
Fact: Families of victims continue to be traumatized for many years, even decades, after the sentence is pronounced. Every appeal, every re-trial, and every statement by the defendant further prolongs the agony. Many family members have stated that had they known the torture they would endure throughout the legal process, they would prefer to see the defendant sentenced to life without parole (which begins immediately after the trial).
Myth 2: Execution is more cost efficient to the taxpayers than a life sentence.
Fact: Numerous studies in many states have concluded that when all the additional expenses of court proceedings and appeals, the actual expense to the taxpayer is at least double (and in some cases triple) the cost of maintaining an inmate in a maximum security prison for 40 years. Maryland, for example, reported that a single death sentence costs almost $2 million more than a comparable non-death penalty case. Moreover, Maryland spent $186 million extra for just five executions. Imagine if that money had been spent on additional law enforcement or correctional officers to keep our communities and prisons safer.
Myth 3: Every defendant gets adequate representation.
Fact: Ninety percent of those on death row were too poor to afford their own attorneys. Many court appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid, and are the least experienced in capital defense proceedings. Yet capital defense is much more time consuming and complicated than other criminal defense work. Public defense offices are plagued by unmanageable caseloads, high turnover, and some of the lowest paid in the profession. Courts often allow the most egregious mistakes to stand. In one famous “sleeping lawyer” case of George McFarland, a Texas court ruled “the Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney. It doesn’t say the lawyer has to be awake.”
Myth 4: DNA testing prevents executing an innocent person.
Fact: DNA evidence exists in less than 15% of criminal cases. In those few cases where DNA evidence is available, access to the DNA database or new testing is extremely limited. While it is true that 135 death row inmates have been exonerated since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1973 (seven in Oklahoma), and many of those exonerations were due to DNA test findings, the risk of executing an innocent person is still very real. In the past two years, the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, and the St Louis Dispatch collectively reported on four executed inmates, who were likely innocent. They are Ruben Cantu of Texas, Carlos de Luna of Texas, Larry Griffin of Missouri, and Cameron Todd Willingham of Texas.

Myth 5: Every defendant is treated fairly and equally under the law.
Fact (a): Geography counts-Where a crime is committed can play as big a role as the nature of the crime in determining who will live and who will die. Similar murders might get 40 years in one county and the death penalty in the next county over. Numerous states, including Ohio, Illinois, Maryland, and Tennessee, have a large percentage of death sentences from just one or two counties. Nationally, in 2007, nearly three-fourths of all executions took place in just three states. The South accounts for 80% of the executions in the United States and has the highest murder rate.
Fact (b): Justice is blind-Many of the most high profile murderers and serial killers don’t get the death penalty because they have better lawyers who negotiate deals. Meanwhile poor defendants are executed for robberies “gone wrong” or murders that were not premeditated. Accomplices have been executed in cases where the actual killer got life. Eighty percent of those executed in the US were convicted of killing a white person, even though African Americans are victims in about half of all murders.

I could relate more “myths vs. facts,” but for the sake the readers, please think about this information, and ask yourself, isn’t it time for Oklahoma to finally abandon the old West notion, “hang ‘em high,” and recognize that capital punishment is so flawed that it ought to be removed from the list of punishment alternatives for our legal system? Thank you for time and consideration.


Dane Gill
Choctaw, OK


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