Eugene Register Guard: Until justice is absolutely fair, abolish death penalty

Dr. Todd Huffman of McKenzie Pediatrics in Eugene, OR

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In April, Connecticut became the fifth state in five years to abolish the death penalty. In Oregon this past December, Gov. John Kitzhaber placed a moratorium on all executions, citing his refusal “to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer.”

That public response to Kitzhaber’s action has been relatively mute perhaps indicates that the time has come for Oregon to join Connecticut and 16 other states in abolishing capital punishment.

The United States is one of the few industrialized democratic nations that still has the death penalty. Most countries have abolished it, or severely curtailed its use.

Today, 97 percent of all executions worldwide take place in just seven countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, North Korea and the United States. Much about capital punishment can be said simply by the company we keep.

The death penalty is a weighty moral issue. Both proponents and opponents seek the solution that values human life and instills hope in the community. Both seek justice. Both seek to safeguard society from future threats of harm.

The question of whether people deserve to die for a terrible crimes they’ve committed is a sensible one. But equally sensible, while seldom asked, is whether society’s interest in executing persons guilty of murder is sufficiently compelling to justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake.

Our criminal justice system is fallible. Miscarriages of justices occur, as an abundance of wrongful convictions confirm. Juries, being human, err. Sometimes, they are even biased. Sometimes, police lie. Snitches often do.

The death penalty in America is defined by error. For every nine people executed in the United States since 1976, one death row inmate has been exonerated and released. That’s an astonishing error rate. Would we accept such an rate in air travel or in the operating room?

Most perplexing is that despite Americans’ long-standing distrust for “big government,” there remains strong albeit declining support for the ultimate form of government power — the authority to take away a human life. Should we feel some cognitive dissonance from holding the conflicting beliefs that the same government that can’t do anything right is flawless when it comes to prosecuting labyrinthine capital cases?

If the day comes when humans invent a perfectly just system, only then may the state be granted the right of mortal retribution. Until then, there is no way to implement the death penalty fairly. Despite all legal safeguards, whether one gets death remains unduly dependent on geography, the color of the defendant’s skin, the color of the victim’s skin, the victim’s wealth and profession, the poverty of the defendant and the integrity of law enforcement and the judiciary.

As much as we would like to think otherwise, we have a system of justice that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Although racial bias certainly exists, wealth is the prime arbiter of innocence. The poor cannot afford high-profile allies and teams of lawyers to swing justice in their favor.

As Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, aptly states, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. It’s justice.”

And being as the poor are disproportionately people of color, the death penalty is meted out no less disproportionately on minorities. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, three-fourths of those sentenced to death have been members of minority groups. More than two-thirds of death row inmates today are people of color, despite that they compromise less than one-third of the U.S. population.

The death penalty delivers on none of its promises. It does not deter crime, make anyone safer or cost less than a sentence of life without parole. It is plagued by arbitrariness, unfairness and racial bias.

And for so long as the poor get one form of justice and the rich another, all men are not created — or destroyed — equal.

It’s time for Oregon to replace the death penalty with the sole alternative of life without parole.

Todd Huffman of Eugene is a physician who practices at McKenzie Pediatrics.

The original article at has been removed by the Eugene Register Guard.



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