Killing innocents

Posted on December 3, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Death penalty opponents have a favorite chorus that they sing in unison to support their arguments:
What a crime it would be for the state to execute an innocent person.

Usually, they also point to cases of the DNA exoneration of inmates wrongfully accused and convicted.

They raise valid contentions on both points, but then they inevitably leap to an annoyingly illogical conclusion, namely that the whole of capital punishment should be scrapped.

Hyper-focused zealots willing to throw the baby out with the bath water are nothing new, of course. The cautionary idiom to salvage the symbolic infant has been around for 500 years. The columnists, pundits, activists and especially the Death Row inmates who fervently support abolishing the death penalty fail to address or acknowledge two main counterpoints.

First, they inexplicably limit their worry of innocent bloodshed to the extremely unlikely (and thus far undocumented) occurrence of a wrongful execution, ignoring completely the all too frequent flip side: unexecuted killers surviving to murder again.

Second, capital punishment abolitionists ignore the logical extension of their own reasoning regarding dubious convictions. If shaky evidence ought to make us hesitate in executing a criminal, indisputable evidence should put our conscience at ease in the matter.

Of course, as many a Supreme Court justice has observed, the fanatics who unceasingly bring challenges against capital punishment laws are fraught with false pretense. They profess to speak on behalf of the wrongly convicted, but they hope to sabotage the death penalty for the guilty as sin, too.

The holy grail of protecting an “innocent” from execution is decidedly hallucinatory, painting a topsy-turvy picture of the problem. For every person exonerated by DNA, the guilt of countless others is confirmed by the science.

But justice is the first and last casualty in most death penalty cases, which have been reduced to judicial vessels in which social extremists of one stripe or another seek to circumvent the legislative branch—and jurors’ prudence.

Consider the current lawsuit involving eight Death Row inmates who are trying any and all means to avoid the fate they meted out to their victims.

The death penalty is reserved for crimes aggravated by compounding circumstances. Not surprisingly, each of the plaintiffs now nitpicking the intricate chemical and policy protocols of Arkansas’ lethal injection law exhibited callous brutality when in control of another person’s fate.

Jack Jones raped and strangled Mary Phillips in her bookkeeping office in Bald Knob and thought he beat her 11-year-old daughter to death, too. But the child miraculously survived her fractured skull. Far from being exonerated by DNA evidence, 10 years after his conviction in 1995, his DNA also linked Jackson to the murder of another woman, Lorraine Barrett, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. in 1991.

Frank Williams Jr. was on a work-release program and working on Clyde Spence’s farm in 1992. After Williams was fired from his job, he returned later that night and shot Spence to death.

Alvin Jackson and Kenneth Williams are poster boys for the death penalty.

Convicted in the barbaric 1989 murder of Little Rock businessman Charles Colclasure, who was shot six times and run over three times, Jackson avoided the death penalty, only to live to stab and kill prison guard Scott Grimes in 1995.

Williams was only 19 days into a life sentence in 1999 for murdering college cheerleader Dominique Hurd when he escaped and fatally shot farmer Cecil Boren seven times. After stealing Boren’s guns, jewelry and truck, Williams led police on a high-speed chase, ultimately colliding head-on with another vehicle and killing its driver, Michael Greenwood. An execution in Williams’ first case would have spared two innocent lives.

When Bruce Ward strangled 18-year-old convenience store clerk Rebecca Doss in a restroom in 1989, she wasn’t the first woman to die at his hands. He had a previous voluntary manslaughter conviction in the 1977 death of Janet Needham in Pennsylvania.

Jason McGehee was the leader of a group who doled out judgment on a “snitch” in 1996 when he and others bound, cut, beat and burned 15-year-old John Melbourne Jr. before finally strangling him.

Stacey Johnson slashed the throat of Carol Heath in her De Queen home in 1993 while her young children hid in a closet. It was the oldest child’s sixth birthday. DNA retesting this year helped cement his death sentence.

Plaintiff Marcel Williams carjacked and then robbed, raped and murdered Jacksonville resident Stacy Errickson in 1994. The last images of her were ATM videos showing her terrified face as she withdrew money at gunpoint.

The biting irony of this lawsuit is that had the death penalty been applied among these plaintiffs, it would have saved innocent lives.

That’s the convincing side of capital punishment that needs to be told more.

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