Decency demands we take no chances with the death penalty

By Robert Mann

The chance a terrorist will hijack my next flight to Atlanta is infinitesimal, but I will submit to a virtual strip search when I board that plane. And I’ll do it every time to gain the assurance I’ve dodged one of the rarest transportation calamities.

Many of us take similar precautions every day to prevent other unlikely occurrences. We pay a premium for safety features on new cars. We gobble multivitamins and dietary supplements to ward off diseases we have little chance of contracting. We part with thousands for alarm systems and even more for car and home insurance.

Our predilection to limiting the risk of rare misfortune extends to almost every aspect of life. Except in our criminal justice system, which sometimes seems designed to eliminate the risk that a defendant might be acquitted.

 Which brings me to the death penalty and why we should abolish it, as state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, propose. I’m not sure what chance their bill has in the current legislative session, but it’s probably less than the likelihood that an innocent person sits today on Louisiana’s death row.

The chance that Louisiana — or any of the 30 other states with the death penalty — might put an innocent person on death row is four times greater than your chance of being killed in an auto accident. It’s almost 50 times greater than your chance of drowning.

How do we know this? In an impressive, comprehensive study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) in 2014, four researchers concluded 4.1 percent of those in death row prison cells in the United States are innocent. And, they added, “it is likely that we have an undercount.”

We also know this because, since 1973, 157 death-row inmates have been exonerated. The most recent was a Louisiana man, Rodricus Crawford, finally exonerated on April 17 when the state Supreme Court dismissed all charges against him.

The study’s authors said that because of intense scrutiny in capital cases, wrongful executions (versus wrongful sentencing) are rare but probable. “With an error rate at trial over 4%,” they caution, “it is all but certain that several of the 1,320 defendants executed since 1977 [that number is now 1,448] were innocent.”

This suggests that about 116 of the approximately 2,900 peopleserving on death row in the United States could be innocent.

If you had a 4 percent (one in 25) probability of dying in a plane crash (it’s actually one in 9,821), you’d be a fool to fly anywhere. If you had a 4 percent probability of dying in a car wreck (it’s one in 645), you would never leave your house.

Too many judges and prosecutors, however, are satisfied with a 4 percent error rate in handing down death sentences.

Argue all you want about the immorality of the government killing people. Protest the death penalty because of the cost of trying and housing death-row inmates versus those sentenced to life without parole. Those and other arguments resonate with me and others but are secondary to the near certainty that we have condemned dozens of innocent people to death row.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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