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OP-ED: Mario Cuomo Calls Capital Punishment Corrosive to Society

In a recent op-ed in the New York Daily News, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo called the death penalty a "serious moral problem" that is "corrosive" to a democratic citizenry. He said many of the problems of the death penalty--ineffectiveness as a deterrent, unfairness, and the risk of executing the innocent--are inevitable: "These imperfections - as well as the horrible and irreversible injustice they can produce - are inevitable. In this country, a defendant is convicted on proof beyond a reasonable doubt - not proof that can be known with absolute certainty. There's no such thing as absolute certainty in our law." He advocated for alternative punishments for murder, particularly life in prison without the possibility of parole: "There is a punishment that is much better than the death penalty: one that juries will not be reluctant to impose; one that is so menacing to a potential killer, that it could actually deter; one that does not require us to be infallible so as to avoid taking an innocent life; and one that does not require us to stoop to the level of the killers." Cuomo mentioned the execution of Troy Davis as an example of the risks posed by the uncertainties in the system.  As governor, Cuomo repeatedly vetoed legislation to restore New York's death penalty. Read full op-ed below.


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Florida's Death Penalty Marked by Arbitrary Decisions

Mike Thomas, columnist for the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, recently examined the arbitrariness of the state's death penalty system.  "There is no rhyme or reason here," he wrote. "A governor's decision on whose death warrant to sign, as well as a judge's decision on which appeal to accept, are about as arbitrary as a prosecutor's decision to pursue the death penalty.  We spend an estimated $51 million annually on this nonsense, and for our investment we haven't executed anyone going on a year and a half."  Thomas examined recent murder cases in the state, where the death penalty is pursued in one but not the other, concluding that "The odds certainly seem to favor those who can afford top legal talent."  He saw little chance for change in this process: "A new drug that Florida plans to use in its lethal cocktail finally survived all the legal challenges, including one by [death row inmate Manuel] Valle, only to be pulled by the manufacturer. A new drug will mean more challenges.  A federal judge recently ruled that Florida's death-penalty statute is unconstitutional because the condemning jury doesn't have to disclose which aggravating circumstances led to its recommendation.  On and on it goes."


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How Preconceptions and Bias May Have Led to Wrongful Convictions of West Memphis Three

In a recent op-ed in the L.A. Times, Professor Jennifer L. Mnookin (pictured) of the UCLA Law School provided an analysis of how preconceptions and biases toward the unconventional suspects known as the West Memphis Three may have led to their wrongful convictions and a death sentence in Arkansas in 1994.  Because of the grisly nature of the murders, investigators decided early on that it was probably related to satanic cult rituals. This theory pointed them to Damien Echols, who was a self-described Wiccan with an unusual taste in clothes and music. Mnookin explained that "cognitive biases" - the tendency of humans to see what they expect to see - played a role in these convictions. Mnookin wrote, "Investigators and prosecutors, even when they are trying their best to do their jobs, may seek out or take special notice of evidence that confirms their prior beliefs rather than evidence that challenges it. And they are likely to interpret ambiguous evidence in ways that accord with their preconceptions." For example, the police interviewed Echols's friend, Jessie Misskelley, who had an IQ of 72, and accepted his account of the crime even though it contradicted the evidence.  Mnookin wrote, "The prosecutor's case was based largely on character assassination, innuendo and the not-very-credible testimony of the likes of a jailhouse snitch and a witness with a mail-order doctorate. Not a shred of physical evidence linked any of the young men to the crime scene (and post-conviction DNA testing has also failed to find any biological evidence that they were there)."  Mnookin noted that at least three of the most common causes of wrongful conviction were present in the West Memphis Three case: dubious forensic evidence, false confessions and evidence from an unreliable jailhouse informants. She attributed the recent release of the defendants partly to the work of documentary filmmakers who investigated the case. Read full op-ed below.


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