Tuesday, September 25, 2007

AJC's "Life or Death" series

This week's AJC special series on the death penalty has made for some interesting reading for those of us that are interested in the topic. So far, lots of different angles have been covered by the AJC staff in terms of what kinds of cases get consideration, prosecutors and their personal feelings on the issue and what goes into their decision to seek or not seek the death penalty, concious and unconcious racism, jury perspectives, and the role of DNA in the acquittal of several residents of death row.

Regular readers of this blog might recall that I used to be in favor of capital punishment. However, over time, my position has changed. It has changed because I do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to crimes involving murder. Not to mention the fact that we now know for sure that there have been defendents found guilty of murder and sentenced to death who should not have been. Yes, the death penalty is fallible yet irrevocable once administered. Also, I don't think that I can morally justify the deliberate taking of life sanctioned by government, especially in light of such risk of getting it wrong.

More and more Americans are reaching the same conclusions that I have. The AJC's research shows that fewer prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, and fewer juries are willing to levy it. According to this Heather Vogell article in the AJC, here are some reasons why:

"Ten of the 38 death penalty states have put executions on hold — seven because of challenges that lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, according to state officials and the Death Penalty Information Center.

Exonerations of death row criminals because of DNA and other evidence have also heightened fear that an innocent person could be executed, experts say.

Scott Sundby, a law professor and death penalty expert at Washington and Lee University, said he believes better training and support for defense lawyers also explain the drop in death trials. Three U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 2000 have underscored that the court will overturn a death sentence if the defendant is not represented properly.

The cost of death penalty prosecutions has climbed as capital defense has grown more thorough. Sundby said those higher costs, the reduced odds of victory, and a perception that perhaps the public isn't demanding death as it once did may all be discouraging prosecutors from taking death cases to trial."

But, rest assured, there are "though on crime" zealots out there that are trying to reverse these trends in spite of what we are finding out about the death penalty and the social issues surrounding it. Vogell notes that earlier this year, a group of them tried to change the law requiring a unanimous decision to impose the death penalty be changed to make it easier to get more death penalty verdicts. Surprisingly, we even had a Democratic gubernatorial candidate pander to those zealots in 2006 by coming out in favor of applying the death penalty to cases not involving murder.

I've mentioned this before, but I grew up in a home that was located approximately 15 miles from the heinous 1973 Alday murders, committed by escaped convicts from Maryland on a joyride through north Florida and south Georgia. Not only that, but based on the accounts of several different books and a movie on the subject, the killers drove right past the turnoff for our dirt road, not even 2 miles from where we lived. They also stopped at the mom and pop grocery store where I was later to work during my high school years. I even worked with an attorney that was assigned to defend one of the defendents in the original trial held in Donalsonville.

One of the most shocking aspects of this brutal crime was that it was so random. According to my parents, we were home. I was a little over a year old. So I never experienced the full shock of the actual events. But it left the people of our small, rural community devasted. By all accounts, these murderers killed good, decent, hard working people who may have been of simple means (as we all were), but were valuable assets to their community.

While the others received jail sentences, ringleader Carl Isaacs got the death penalty. Isaacs became the longest serving resident of Georgia's death row as he spent 30 years filing appeals and eventually won a new trial. During those 30 years, he spent much of it calling the residents of south Georgia "rednecks" and mocking the survivors of his victims by saying, "The only signifcant thing the Aldays ever did was to get murdered by me." However, Isaacs did eventually meet his date with death in 2003.

Perhaps even more cruel is the fact that the Alday family and the residents of Seminole County continued to suffer the consequences of Isaacs' and his friends' actions. With all of the male members of the Alday family dead, their widows and children lost their farms. The county, being one of the smallest and most poor in the entire state, was financially strapped and unable to provide some services to its own residents because it was burdened by Isaacs' endless appeals and chicanery.

So if anyone ever deserved the death penalty, it was Carl Isaacs.

I go into such personal detail, not to pretend in any way that I could ever understand the 30 year nightmare of the Alday survivors. Because I can't. I do it because I want those of you that care to read this to know that I don't sympathize with people who do such horrible things. My sympathies lie with the victims.

But even having known some of the people involved in one of the most traumatizing events in the history of the state of Georgia, I think it's important for people who support the death penalty to look into and understand the complexities of the issue. There are problems - serious problems that cross racial lines, economic lines, and go right to the heart of our sense of right and wrong. It's something that we all should consider.


Larry said...

Good topic and one that you could come down either side on.

I do know that Texas has the most executions yet it still has crimes of the bazaar.

Kathy said...

But, rest assured, there are "tough on crime" zealots out there that are trying to reverse these trends in spite of what we are finding out about the death penalty and the social issues surrounding it.

Oh yeah. Alabama's Attorney General is firmly in that camp. He never met an execution he didn't like, and he accuses anyone who opposes the death penalty of supporting criminals, no matter the circumstances. Even the generally conservative editorial board at the Birmingham News has studied the issue and come down on the side of a moratorium, but our elected officials are having none of that.

Birmingham Blues