Capital Punishment: A Morally Flawed, Broken Legal–Social System

Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer, OMI
Reprint with permission

Capital punishment is a morally flawed, broken legal–social system. The present death penalty system is buried beneath an avalanche of error and injustice. The new millennium, calling for a new vision for humanity, is a splendid time to have an honest assessment of capital punishment at a national and state level by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Justice demands a careful study of the issue of capital punishment — its purposes, processes, and history.

Capital punishment is contrary to the highest moral standards and flies in the face of justice, as it mistakenly proposes to solve the grave social ill of killing by killing; of ending violence through violence. A major defect of this morally flawed system is that innocence, or the degree of innocence, is very often determined by economics and power influence. People who are poor and people of color are often provided poor legal defense and are disproportionately executed.

For many Christians, capital punishment strikes at the divine image that is stamped on each human, regardless of the human's behavior. This is not to say that violent criminals are not to be punished, because part of our Judeo–Christian belief is that justice be applied for wrongdoing. In dealing with this critical question, first and foremost compassion must be extended to the victims of capital crimes, and in the punishment that is meted out to offenders, new emphasis must be given to their rehabilitation. All segments of society must work together to address the root causes of crime — child abuse, domestic violence, poverty, drugs, lack of education and employment opportunities.

Recent studies and research confirm that capital punishment is also a broken legal — social system. The cumulative research of reputable authors of the book, “Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted”, compels the conclusion that many innocent people are in prison, and some innocent people have been executed. The careless or corrupt administration of capital punishment, which “Actual Innocence” powerfully suggests is intolerably common.

James Liebman's just–published report — “A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases 1973-1995”, transforms the debate on the death penalty by identifying a system riddled with errors.

Liebman, a professor at Columbia University law school, and his principal collaborators, undertook the daunting task of tracking every death sentence case that went through the legal system in the 23 years following the 1972 Supreme Court decision, which began the modern death–sentencing era. The principal findings of this enormous study show that of the 4,578 death sentences that were adjudicated completely during these past two–plus decades, that serious error was found in an astonishing 68% of the cases.

The principal sources of the serious errors brought out in Liebman's research meriting a new trial were two: many cases of incompetent defense lawyers, and prosecutors who suppressed evidence that would have exonerated the defendant or mitigated the penalty.

Of the 301 cases that were actually retried during this period, 247 (or 82%) resulted in sentences less severe than death, including 22 cases where the defendant was found not guilty. When two–thirds of the death sentences involve serious error in the eyes of the reviewing state and federal judges, it is obvious that the present system is morally flawed and is a broken legal–social system.

According to Liebman's findings, Texas' reversal rate was 52 percent. Only two states had lower rates. In Texas, the study involved 717 death sentences and 104 executions. Liebman said the Texas error rate raises the question of whether problems with death penalty cases are being detected. If the state is going to impose the ultimate punishment, which many object to, there is a grave obligation to make sure that innocent people are not executed.

The death spotlight is shining on the Texas criminal justice system and it is casting a very dark shadow. Texas leads the nation in the number of inmates on death row and in the number of people executed for capital crimes. Fourteen other convicts are scheduled to be executed in Texas between now and the November elections.

Sadly in the Lone Star State there is adequate evidence that in many cases the state has furnished defense attorneys who were not prepared to protect the rights of the offenders in capital cases. Stephen Bright points out in his study, “Death in Texas”: “The state's highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — appoints lawyers incapable of preparing post–conviction petitions and filing them on time and then punishes the condemned inmates for the incompetency of the lawyers it appointed”.

The post–conviction review office needs to be reinstated, and the state needs to provide quality public–defender service through some centralized evaluation and selection processes. Justice is not served when some defense lawyers can sleep through part of a critical trial. Poor lawyering in Texas prompted our legislature to unanimously pass a bill to improve counsel for indigent defendants. This bill was vetoed by the governor. DNA testing should be mandatory when there is the ability to do so, and not just in death penalty cases.

The slipshod manner in which attorneys are appointed in Texas — and the poor compensation paid them once appointed — brings out the lack of justice that should be demanded by public policy–makers, judges and government officials. Today, the common good and the human dignity of all can best be furthered by less drastic, non–lethal means, such as life imprisonment without parole. At least 42 states now offer the equally effective punishment of life without parole. Doing so saves money, avoids fatal errors and keeps criminals off the street.

Despite the polls that show that a majority of Americans, and especially Texans, favor the death penalty, although the numbers are dropping, the issue of whether or not states should enact the ultimate punishment demands our serious attention, and is a topic of great concern for all as we enter the new millennium. This new moment of human history compassionately calls for a moratorium on executions, while a comprehensive review of this critical issue is undertaken by all branches of government. Basic human justice demands that this morally, legally and socially flawed system be addressed and corrected.