An editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune recently called for an end to capital punishment, stating that “the legal, moral and practical arguments against capital punishment have evolved from sound to unassailable” since the punishment was reinstated over 30 years ago. The editorial points to the fallibility of the system as a major concern, citing the Death Penalty Information Center’s report that nine inmates have been exonerated and released from death row in 2009 alone. The arbitrary nature of the death penalty system that places racial minorities and the poor at a greater disadvantage, as well as the cost of applying the death penalty compared to its alternatives, were also of concern. Read the full text below.

Denial of death
Time to end capital punishment

In the 33 years since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, and convicted Utah killer Gary Gilmore’s execution became the first of 1,188 to follow, the legal, moral and practical arguments against capital punishment have evolved from sound to unassailable.

And one by one, the states are having second thoughts. So far, 15 have dropped the death penalty and 10 others have looked at doing so. The realization that our system of capital punishment is cripplingly fallible and inherently unfair has been spurred by a growing number of cases in which new evidence based on DNA testing or other advances in forensic science has proven that police, prosecutors and the jury got it wrong.

Indeed, the Death Penalty Information Center puts at 129 the number of inmates since Gilmore who have been released from death row based on new evidence, including nine this year who were freed after serving a combined 121 years before they were exonerated.

The release from prison last week of Donald E. Gates, who served 27 years of a life sentence for a murder that DNA evidence proved another man had committed, underscores the error or caprice that, in capital murder cases, can claim another innocent victim.

Before Gilmore was shot by a firing squad of anonymous riflemen on Jan. 17, 1977, ending a decade-long moratorium on the death penalty imposed by the Supreme Court, capital punishment had already been shown to be unevenly applied. Racial minorities and the poor were much more likely to face execution than whites from the middle or upper classes. And cases where the condemned was later shown to be innocent, either before or after execution, were not uncommon even then. Eight were exonerated from 1973 to 1976.

But fairness and fallibility did not prove sufficient cause for the courts to reject execution as legally indefensible, and the death penalty prospered. The number of death sentences rose to an annual high of 328 in 1994. But that rate has fallen by 63 percent since then, to 106 new cases in 2009, the lowest number since the death penalty was restored in 1976.

The high-profile impact of exonerations is not the only factor in the current seven-year decline in cases in which convicted criminals are sent to death row. With state budgets crashing, the sheer cost of applying the death penalty compared to life in prison is another.

Our system of capital punishment, which 48 of 50 European nations have outlawed, is broken and cannot be fixed. Life in prison without parole, arguably worse than death, should be the limit.

(Tribune Editorial, “Denial of death,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 21, 2009). Read other Editorials here. See also Innocence and Race.