Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: 100 death penalty mistakes and counting

April 25, 2002

A few words about 100 people who were not killed.

They very easily could have been killed, it was forcefully argued that they should have been killed and if most of us had our way, they likely would have been killed. After all, they were convicted criminals, perpetrators of a sickening cavalcade of rapes, robberies and murders.

So why should any of us have favored any of them with our tears of sympathy? Let's strap them down, plug them in, inject them and eject them from life among the living. There's absolutely no reason we shouldn't.

Unless you count the fact that they were innocent. Didn't do the crimes for which they did the time. Judicial error, corrupt cops, incompetent defense lawyers, tampered evidence — hey, it happens.


This is how the scenario has unfolded, 100 times now, since capital punishment was reinstated in the 1970s. Indeed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, it was just this week that a man named Ray Krone became No. 100. Sentenced to die for the 1991 murder of a cocktail waitress in Phoenix, the former postal worker was instead set free Monday. DNA evidence says the chance that Krone committed the crime is one in 1.3 quadrillion. There are 15 zeroes in a quadrillion.

That should be — probably won't be, but should — more than enough impetus for the nation to rethink its lust for capital punishment. Granted, the majority that supports the policy is shrinking, but it's still a majority. As a nation, we remain hooked on this relic of frontier justice; it seems to satisfy some primal need for judgment, unambiguous and final.

It's the finality that is the problem.

After all, you can debate the death penalty on several fronts. Religious people frequently cite their faith in arguing for it — and against it. Some observers challenge it on grounds of fairness, the fact that statistically, capital punishment falls disproportionately upon those who are poor, or male, or black. Others dispute the credibility of those assertions.

But there's one aspect of the death penalty upon which both supporters and opponents must agree: When it's done, it's done. Once an error is committed, there's no taking it back.

For the life of me, I can't understand how anyone can acknowledge that simple, undeniable truth — yet still support capital punishment. But somehow, they do. Indeed, they do with enthusiasm. We countenance few barriers to this shameful national pastime. On the contrary, we happily execute the mentally retarded and the emotionally unstable. We execute those who were just children when they committed their crimes and those whose lawyers failed to provide them a defense. You say you found God while you were in prison? Good deal. Let us send you to meet Him.

At the end of 2000, the population of Death Row was 3,593. Convicted murderers, all.

We say, with Orwellian logic, that we must kill killers as proof of our respect for the sanctity of life. But what about the sanctity of Ray Krone's life? What about the sanctity of 99 other innocent lives that survived Death Row? What about the sanctity of those that did not?

Hey, you know as well as I do that we've already executed people for crimes they didn't commit. We just don't know their names — yet. Do the math. Almost 770 people have been put to death in this country in the past 25 years. And for every seven killed, one has been exonerated. With an error rate that high, do you really think every mistake was caught, every innocent set free? Are you willing to bet a life on it? Should you even have that right?

Or isn't it time to call the death penalty the atavistic failure it is? Time to unplug the chair, send the gurneys back to the hospital and make life in prison without possibility of parole the harshest punishment in our legal arsenal. That way, if you make a mistake, you can at least give a man back what's left of his life.

You may disagree, but I warn you: I have many reasons to believe I'm right. A hundred of them, in fact. And counting.

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