A Closer Look at Flaws in the Criminal Justice System –
The state’s 1st District Court of Appeal last week overturned a judge’s order that had halted lethal-injection executions, but that order will not take effect until Thursday, which gives defense attorneys time to appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.
On Monday, the San Jose Mercury News issued forth an editorial entitled, “Death penalty doesn’t work – it should be abolished.”
Writes the Mercury News editorial staff, “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision Monday to delay the execution of Albert Greenwood Brown for 45 hours was welcome news. The march to execution, after a 4&1/2-year moratorium, was needlessly rushed, given that lawyers are still challenging a new lethal injection protocol and that several appeals are pending.”
What makes the issue far more bizarre is a shortage of sodium thiopental. The trade name is Pentothal, which is exclusively manufactured by Hospira. And apparently there is a shortage of the drug. Hospira is unable to get one of the ingredients, so they can’t manufacture any more Pentothal – no more until sometime in the first quarter of next year.
California’s supply apparently expires on Thursday at midnight, just three hours after Mr. Brown is now scheduled to be executed. After that, California will not be able to execute anyone for six months, or so they announced Monday. Are you kidding me?
Writes the Mercury News, “So if further appeals fail, the state will be trying to cram this execution into the three-hour window in which it’s allowed. That is inappropriate, given the gravity of the event and the remaining questions about the new procedure for administering the death penalty.”
“The situation is so up in the air that last Friday, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel said Brown should choose how he wants to die, with an injection of either one drug or three. Forcing Brown — who was convicted of raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl in 1980 — to make this grim choice is ‘unconstitutionally medieval,’ as his lawyers so aptly put it,” they continue.
This leads the San Jose paper to conclude, “The absurdities in Brown’s case only add to the mountains of evidence that the system is beyond repair.”
“Most death penalty supporters say it deters crime, but proof of that claim is scarce,” they write.
“And even as it fails in its central mission — preventing crime — the death penalty costs billions. California spends an estimated $125 million a year to administer it. Brown’s 28 years on death row, according to the ACLU, have cost $4.8 million more than we’d have paid if his sentence were life without parole,” they point out.
How expensive is this? “So California has spent about a half-billion dollars the past four years without executing a single prisoner, not to mention the $400 million it’s spending to build a 1,400-bed death row and $853,000 for a sparkling new death chamber. Wouldn’t that money be better used to hire more police, beef up crime labs and assist victims?”
They continue, “Some say these costs could be avoided if the state would just speed things up. Doing so, however, would cost tens of millions more, since the reason for the bottleneck is that there aren’t enough lawyers and court staff to handle the necessary appeals.”
“But now is not the time to hit the accelerator. More than 100 people have been freed from death row in the past 35 years, including five last years,” they continue. “A criminal in Alameda County is six times more likely to get the death penalty than one in San Mateo County. Black defendants have received a third of all death sentences in the state but are less than 7 percent of the population.”
They conclude, “California spends billions on a system that is so convoluted and archaic that it has resorted to asking a prisoner to choose which type of lethal injection he would prefer. It’s time to stop tinkering and abolish the death penalty.”
Problems with the Death Penalty Reflective of Problems in Criminal Justice System
I will be the first to admit that I have always been opposed to the death penalty, but for a long time the support for the death penalty seemed so overwhelming it was not a key issue for me.
Polls at first glance show strong support for the death penalty, until you give the responders the alternative of life without parole, then the support drops to below 50%. When people find out the truth about the costs, it drops further.
Supporters, as the editorial references, argue we need to expedite the process. The length of time that people spend on death row is too long, they argue. The problem with that is that even with the length of time and safeguards we have in place now, innocent people have been put to death. Speeding up the process and limiting appeals will only increase those numbers.
What has sealed my view of the death penalty, though, is watching the court system for the last nine months. The responders to those polls have not sat through trial after trial, and watched our flawed and politicized court system at work.
We use the most imprecise methods to determine crucial questions of guilt and innocence.
Last week we had a chilling story about the number of people who falsely confess. One of the points raised there was that we need to be able to watch confessions on video. Then this past week we watched a murder trial, and watched the video of an interrogation. The guy never confessed, but by the end of it, the detective had him so confused, I do not think the guy had any idea what he was saying or agreeing to.
We will have more on this trial shortly, but to me that is an eye-opener that we need to look not only at confessions but at evidence provided through interrogations – on the surface they appear to be far more problematic and questionable than previously thought.
We need to have more stringent requirements on lawyers being present. Law enforcement refers to it derrogatorily as “lawyering up,” but really it preserves not only the rights of defendants but also the truth. If you catch the wrong person, what good does it do society? And yet we have turned these into games that must be won at all costs, including the cost of the truth.
Previous research has cast doubt on the veracity of eyewitness testimony and identification, and yet jury trials still rely very heavily on the flawed recollections of eyewitnesses in hopes that somehow we can put together a viable picture of what happened. This despite decades of research that show just how unreliable eyewitness testimony really is. And yet, we have seen cases in this county where people have been convicted to lengthy terms, based on a single-witnesses identification – an uncertain one at best.
Last week we had an article that emphasized the role of prosecutorial misconduct, stemming from a USA Today investigative piece.
And then the other problem is that even with scientific evidence, the use of forensic science can be flawed. CNN had an expose that showed the problems with crime labs and the shortcomings of forensic science often being based on assumptions that were never scientifically tested.
We have the infamous case of the bullet-lead analysis that was used to convict people for decades without any kind of scientific verification. Moreover, there is the recent Texas case where the science used to prove an arson turned out to be flawed, and Texas executed an innocent man.
We have had a number of cases that have used DNA evidence to overturn convictions, but the problem is that most cases do not have that kind of physical evidence and therefore DNA only provides a relief and a safeguard in a handful of cases.
Our criminal justice system at its core is flawed and needs to be revamped. The death penalty is our most severe and most scrutinized punishment. With all of the safeguards, we are still making a lot of mistakes in that field, and must imagine other lesser punishments.
—David M. Greenwald reporting