That's the title of Andrew Cohen's latest writing on the death penalty at the Week. It's subtitled, "Even if you support the death penalty, you shouldn't support the flawed way our government enacts it." Here's an extended excerpt of this must-read:
Last week was a memorable one in the annals of American justice. The national Exoneration Registry announced that 87 people were exonerated last year, a new record. From Brooklyn, The New York Times reported on a wrongful conviction scandal its editors called "a tidal wave that could dwarf other exoneration clusters." In Louisiana, Jerome Morgan walked out of prison after 20 years when a state judge found his murder conviction to be marked by "deception, manipulation, and coercion" on the part of the New Orleans Police Department. And an appellate court in Texas told death row inmate Larry Swearingen that he had no right to DNA test the murder weapon used in his case.
All of these stories, the good and the bad, remind us of the arbitrary and capricious nature of our nation's justice systems. Whether you are executed or not, whether you are wrongly imprisoned or not — it doesn't just depend on the evidence against you. It depends on your race and the race of the victim, on the political predilections of your prosecutor and your judge, on the honor of police detectives, on the accuracy of the eyewitnesses testifying against you, on the skill and competency of your defense attorney, and on the mercy of the governor who makes a judgment on clemency. Oh, and it depends on which state you live in and which county in that state.
No one knows any of this better than David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center who has handled hundreds of capital cases in Texas and who has written an excellent new book that helps us better understand the nature of the death penalty. Dow's Things I've Learned From Dying is actually three very personal narratives in one, all of them touching upon how we deal with death, whether it comes from a needle in an execution chamber, cancer, or anything else. "Which is better," Dow asks in his introduction, "to be able to circle the date on a calendar five years from today when your life will end? Or to get flattened by a truck crossing the street and never see it coming? Who had the easier death: Timothy McVeigh, or his victims?"
This is a book from a guy who spends an awful lot of time thinking about dying, and about what it takes to live, and how people cope in those moments when life and death intersect. The insider's view of some of his capital cases alone makes Dow's book compelling. And the lesson of these passages is clear: A person's life is always more than just the worst moments of it, a sentiment that Bryan Stevenson, another clear and eloquent voice in the nation's debate over capital punishment, has made in his speeches. Good for both of them. If there is one thing the debate over the death penalty needs, it's a better understanding of the difference between explaining why some people are moved to murder and excusing them for doing so.