Where we stand -- Executions serve no deterrent purpose, are expensive and rely on imperfect judgment.
This week, as Virginia’s lawmakers debated whether to expand the death penalty, the state prepared to exonerate a 56-year-old man who has spent his adult life being punished for a 1978 rape in Williamsburg that he didn’t commit.
Based on the victim’s identification, Bennett S. Barbour, then 22, was convicted and spent 4½ years in prison. DNA tests unavailable then – and denied to the man in 2004 – now show that he is innocent of the rape of a college student 34 years ago.
Since 2005, when Virginia began testing old biological evidence, at least nine defendants have been found innocent of decades-old charges. Since the late 1980s, 289 defendants in the U.S. have been exonerated; 17 were on death row.
Barbour’s case is the latest reminder that, sometimes with faulty eyewitnesses and sometimes because of corrupt police, our criminal justice system has convicted innocent people and sent them to prison or death row.
It’s also a reminder of why the death penalty is a bad idea. It’s a sentence with no second guesses, no ability to acknowledge an error and correct it.
Which is why, rather than increasing the chance of erroneously executing someone, Virginia should be working to eliminate the possibility of getting it tragically wrong.
In most Virginia cases involving capital murder, only the person who did the killing – the “triggerman” – is supposed to be subject to the death penalty.
Accessories to murder aren’t to be executed if they didn’t actually commit the murder.
But the triggerman restriction is a misnomer because Virginia allows the worst of the worst to be subject to the death penalty, even if they didn’t kill. John Allen Muhammad, for example, was executed for his role in the 2002 sniper shootings though he wasn’t convicted of pulling the trigger.
Despite that, Virginia’s General Assembly has tried for several years to repeal the triggerman rule to give prosecutors greater latitude to pursue death sentences for accomplices to murder.
On Wednesday, a Senate committee, voting along party lines, defeated one effort to expand the number of criminals subject to execution.
The issue is likely to be resurrected after the House passes its bill, as expected. Even though there’s no evidence that pursuing more death sentences will make society safer. Even though the costs of trying capital cases and maintaining death row are far greater. Even though the system is fraught with shortcomings and human error.
Just ask Bennett Barbour.
(source: Editorial, The Virginian-Pilot)