That's the title of commentary by Jeb Golinkin at the Week magazine. It's subtitled, "I believe capital punishment is a just sentence in many cases. But it can also be used as a cudgel to hurt the innocent."
But this abstract debate ignores bigger and less explored dilemmas created by the death penalty. The first is obviously human fallibility. Put simply, innocent people have been convicted of capital crimes and put to death in the United States of America. In the vast majority of those cases, no one acted in bad faith. The jury just got it wrong. In a legal culture that adopted and embraced Blackstone's formulation — "better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer" — the fact that we can get it wrong is deeply problematic, even if, like me, you believe there are crimes for which death is an appropriate sentence and that juries are neither cruel nor inhumane in imposing that sentence on the party they believe perpetrated such an offense.
Now, let's turn to the "Norfolk Four." Their story is long and complicated, but basically, four sailors in Virginia confessed to a rape/ murder that they had nothing to do with after extended questioning and repeated reminders that they could face the death penalty if they refused to admit to their alleged crimes. Later, the true killer came forward and basically said he had no idea who the four fellows the police were talking to him about were. I bring this up because one of those individuals, Eric C. Wilson, still has not been totally exonerated (he is out of prison but he still has to register as a sex offender) and last month filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States asking the high court to permit him a venue through which to clear his name, once and for all.
To borrow from a phrase uttered by one of the attorneys interviewed in the Frontline special on the Norfolk Four, death changes everything. In the coming months, we will see, up close, the upside and downsides of what the mere existence of the death penalty allows law enforcement to do in the stages before the trial even starts.
Earlier coverage of the Norfolk Four begins at the link.