Tuesday, March 14, 2006

How many innocent victims is "a few"?

My better half, my mother, and others remind me that I don't want to be primarily remembered as that "guy who was really for the death penalty." I support capital punishment in the same way I do abortion and assisted suicide: None are good outcomes but there are limited needs for all of these very serious acts.

Nonetheless I simply cannot sit still as reporter after reviewer after columnist continues to torture the truth in their zeal to portray Americans' support of at least the concept of capital punishment as barbarism.

One of many, many recent examples comes in articles in the Detroit Free Press' review of the film "After Innocence," which profiles the lives of several men who were wrongly convicted of serious crimes. I get weary of pointing out that these stories are so stunning precisely because they are so rare. It is unlikely that these days anyone would make a documentary about a serial killer unless his victims were young, blonde, and white.

No one can help but be moved by the stories of some of these men; but, not content with the eloquence or poignancy of their stories, the author makes the astonishing claim that one man "was the 140th person to escape execution through post-conviction DNA testing."

WHAT? Even according to Barry Scheck's Innocence Project there have only been 174 DNA exonerations for ALL crimes, more than 90% of which were not murder, let alone death penalty cases. In fact, the number of inmates taken off death row specifically because DNA cleared them is....FIVE. An additional nine inmates who were once on death row were eventually fully exonerated by DNA evidence.

Some might say, 14 or 140, it doesn't make a difference. That makes as much sense as being told you have a 1% mortality risk from a surgical procedure versus a 10% risk.

Yet people who call themselves journalists and their editors continue to repeat grossly misleading statements like this.

The usual response is, “So what if it’s only 10 -- that’s 10 too many!” Of course it is. A prosecutor’s absolute worst nightmare is not losing a case - any real prosecutor will lose a few. No, the real nightmare is prosecuting or, worse, convicting an innocent person. It is for that reason that many of the high profile Innocence Project exonerations like the late Eddie Lloyd of Detroit or Christopher Ochoa of Texas came to be: in large part because of the actions of the prosecutor to right an injustice.

In the same issue of the Detroit Free Press was another REALLY disturbing story, as evidenced by the headline "a few still kill".

How many ACTUALLY dead innocent victims is “a few?”

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