“At the end of the day, perhaps the best argument against capital punishment may be that it is an issue beyond the limited capacity of government to get things right.”
- Scott Turow, author and former federal prosecutor
In 1981, Donald Beardslee murdered two young women in a complex plot to recoup a debt owed to a drug dealer in Redwood City, Ca.. He was on parole for a 1969 murder at the time. Beardslee was executed by lethal injection at San Quentin State Prison in January, some 20 years after he was convicted and sentenced. But the length of Beardslee’s stay on Death Row does not serve as an endorsement of the appeals process in capital cases. Rather, it points out the utter fallibility of a system so vulnerable to human error and malfeasance that even decades’ worth of legal hearings cannot guarantee that the innocent will not be executed.
This is not to say that Beardslee himself is innocent, though some questions remain about his culpability in the murders. His lawyers unsuccessfully tried to have his conviction thrown out based on new evidence suggesting that Beardslee may have suffered long-term brain damage that affected his ability to distinguish right from wrong. But questions of Beardslee’s guilt or innocence cannot obscure the larger issue: A mountain of evidence shows that innocent people are sentenced to death with alarming frequency in the United States.
There can be no question that innocent people have been condemned to die. Over 100 convicts have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Taken together, those “criminals” served over 1,000 years in prison between their sentencing and exoneration, an average of 9 years each.
The DPIC’s latest report, “Innocence and the Crisis in the American Death Penalty,” is filled with tales of the innocent being sentenced to death. The reasons are myriad – police and prosecutorial misconduct, false or fabricated eyewitness testimony, incompetent or overburdened defense lawyers. Remember that almost all of those exonerated are free solely due to the dogged efforts of a handful of lawyers, students and death penalty opponents. Now imagine what a fully-funded, government-sanctioned effort to investigate capital convictions would find.
An avalanche of evidence also exists showing that the death penalty is fundamentally racist in its application. Under almost any subdivision, ethnic minorities – especially African-Americans – are much more likely than whites to be condemned to die for similar crimes. Black killers of white victims are 16 times more likely to receive a death sentence than white killers of black victims, according to the DPIC. There is no “justice” in a justice system that so blithely murders the innocent and that is so open in its racism.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should follow the courageous lead of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, once a death penalty supporter himself. By the year 2000, Illinois officials had exonerated more condemned prisoners than they had executed since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Confronted with this shocking exposure of the justice system’s failures, Gov. Ryan commuted the sentences of all condemned prisoners and ordered a special commission to investigate the state’s system of capital punishment. Until the people of California can trust that not one innocent life will be extinguished – a moment that may never come, in my opinion – this state must get out of the business of killing.
8:41 pm est