Thursday, October 07, 2004

Death Penalty Doubts

I haven't really thought much about the death penalty much recently. I've thought for some time now that the judicial system in the US is badly broken, and that precludes any claims that we are "sure" of a defendants doubt. I'm undecided at this time about whether the Death Penalty is inherently immoral, but I am sure that it is as applied in the United States today.

However, this New York Times story jolted me out of my reverie. The basics of the story are simple: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 8-7 against the appeal of a man who says he was wrongly convicted of murder. What makes this case unique is that 6 of the 7 dissenting judges don't just disagree with the majority on an arcane point of law, they think the defendant is flat out innocent. The 7th dissenter believes that the new information that has come to light casts at least enough doubt so as to require a new trial. Specifically:
Mr. House was convicted of murdering a neighbor, Carolyn Muncey, in Union County, Tenn., in 1985. The prosecution argued that he had first raped her, saying that semen found on her clothing matched his blood type. The jury cited the rape as a reason for imposing death.

But DNA testing, which was not available at the time, has proved that the semen was that of Mrs. Muncey's husband, Hubert.

At a recent Federal District Court hearing to determine whether Mr. House should be allowed to reopen his case, witnesses testified that Mr. Muncey was an alcoholic who beat his wife. Two witnesses said he had confessed to killing his wife while drunk. A third witness said he had asked her to supply him with an alibi for the murder. Three others also implicated Mr. Muncey, who denied the accusations.

I'm stunned that anyone could conclude at this point that Mr. House is guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt at this point. "This is unprecedented," said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University. "A case in which six judges find that the defendant didn't do the crime is more than just a legal curiosity. In any rational legal universe, there is now at least reasonable doubt about the defendant's guilt."

Unfortunately, we don't live in a rational legal universe. We live in the United States, where innocence presents no barrier to ol' sparky.

The case is likely to be appealed to the US Supreme Court.


BG said...

As a resident of Illinois, we recently faced this issue.

For those who aren't familiar, during Governor George Ryan's term, 13 death row inmates were exonerated. As a result, Gov. Ryan declared a moratorium on executions. Finally, one of the last things he did while in office, Gov. Ryan commuted the sentences of all remaining inmates on death row.

Now, I vehemently disagree with Gov. Ryan's carte blanch commutation of all the death row sentences. It truly was an injustice perpetrated against all the families of the victims whose killers deserved their death row sentence.


I recognize that the justice system is flawed. Obviously, there are people on death row who don't belong there.

Should some people die for their crimes? Absolutely. Some crimes are so heinous, that death is appropriate.

The problem is in the finality of a death sentence. Once a person is dead, we can't bring him back to life. At least with a life sentence, some restitution can be made for those wrongly convicted.

My belief is that the burden of proof should be raised when considering the sentence of death. Rather than guilty beyond reasonable doubt, burden of proof should now be guilty beyond any doubt. With the advent of DNA testing, and other modern forensic technology, juries can now reach such a burden of proof.

In my home town, a man raped, stabbed, and left for dead a thirteen year old girl tied to a tree.

These are the kind of people for which the death penalty should remain.

David Schraub said...

I'm in agreement with you for the most part (although ironicaly, in the case you cited, the criminal would not be eligible for the death penalty (assuming the girl survived). See Coker v. Georgia 433 US 584 (1977).