March 16, 2003
The price of doing business

Today's Chron has a rather dispiriting piece about support for the death penalty in our great state:

The recent flurry of news about capital punishment has not swayed the opinions of Texans, who remain committed to the death penalty, even if it means executing innocent people in the process.

A recent Scripps Howard Texas Poll found 76 percent of Texans said they support the death penalty. Sixty-nine percent of the poll respondents also said they believe the state has executed innocent people.

Before I get into some related topics, I'd first like to point out that the first paragraph above is on logically shaky ground. In the abstract, I support the death penalty, but I want to see it reformed to the point where it's virtually impossible to execute an innocent person. Had they asked me the yes-no questions "Do you support the death penalty?" and "Do you believe innocent people have been executed?", I'd have answered Yes to both. In my personal experience, polls want nice discrete answers to simple questions. An affirmative answer to both of these questions does not necessarily mean that one thinks this is how it needs to be.

That said, I believe the following:

David Atwood of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said he was not surprised by the findings of the recent poll.

"We've had people say executing an innocent person is the price of doing business," Atwood said.

Which is why I found the following bit to be too precious for words:

The poll results baffled even the most ardent death penalty supporters.

"That's hard for me to fathom," said Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a victim's rights organization that supports the death penalty.

Clements questioned whether Texans really believe innocent people have been executed.

"If I believed we executed an innocent inmate, I couldn't support the death penalty. It doesn't make any sense," Clements said.

Dianne Clements and Justice For All are the biggest pimps for the death penalty in the state of Texas. One of their own representatives has shown callous disregard for the possibility of executing innocent people, as seen in this Houston Press piece:

JFA representative Rusty Hubbarth, testifying to Texas legislators last year on a proposal for a moratorium on executions, was asked by one lawmaker, "Rusty, you're not in favor of executing innocent people, are you?"

"Not this week," Hubbarth joked.

The humor was probably lost on two men in attendance that day. Randall Adams and Kerry Cook had collectively spent more than a decade in prison for crimes they didn't commit -- they'd both come within hours of execution.

So spare me the crocodile tears, Dianne.

The story notes that the poll was taken during February, when news of capital punishment and death row prisoners being cleared of their crimes was in the news. If this story is right in stating that some people truly believe that occasionally executing an innocent person is "the price of doing business", then let's at least make sure we're clear on what the price is, for on top of the travesty of killing an innocent person, there are other costs as well.

As Delma Banks Jr. enjoyed a day he didn't think he would live to see, the family of the teenager he was convicted of killing 23 years ago drove back to Texarkana frustrated by what transpired the night before.


Larry Whitehead, the victim's father, said the court's decision stunned his family.

"It's just devastation," he said. "I guess there aren't any words to explain about the disappointment, the hurt. I don't know. I just don't have words for it. The only thing we can feel is yesterday was no justice for our son."

If one comes to the conclusion that Delma Banks is innocent - and it's easy to arrive at that conclusion - then regardless of whether or not he's eventually freed or fried there are a number of victims besides Richard Wayne Whitehead (the 16-year-old that Banks is convicted of killing) and Banks himself. Whitehead's family has been put through an unnecessarily arduous journey for justice, and depending on the vagaries of the Supreme Court may wind up wondering if the real killer was executed or if the real killer will ever be found now that the wrong man has been set free. They deserve a lot better than that.

There's another group to consider, one that won't be mentioned in the paper unless another person is eventually fingered for the Whitehead murder. If Banks is innocent, then the real killer has potentially been out on the streets victimizing other people, people with no connection to the Banks or Whitehead families. If the police and prosecutors had done their jobs properly, this person would have been in jail, possibly on Death Row, instead of remaining free. How big a boost to "the price of doing business" is this?

Granted, that latter cost is independent of the death penalty itself. If Delma Banks were incorrectly serving 25-to-life instead of awaiting execution, the real killer would still be going unpunished. But the reasons why Banks is where he is are precisely the reasons why the death penalty is so troubling. They have to be addressed, not just to save the life of a Delma Banks but to safeguard his freedom. The fact that society as a whole is better off as well is more than just a happy coincidence.

It's easy to sneer at "criminals' rights" and "legal technicalities" that let bad guys go free while hamstringing the cops and the courts. I have a hard time understanding how anyone can call himself or herself a proponent of "law and order" without being passionate about ensuring that the people we lock up are the ones who really deserve it. The way I see it, being indifferent to actual guilt lets a whole lot more criminals walk free than the Miranda ruling ever did.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 16, 2003 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

If you're going to try to argue that Banks is innocent, you might not want to rely on Cragg Hines' article. He isn't known for honestly or good journalism.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on March 17, 2003 2:45 AM

And you know that, how, Owen? Because he's written some scathing columns lately about your hero, Shrub?

He's one of the few bright lights on the Chron's editorial page -- though I suppose you prefer that fount of wisdom, good humor, logic, and honest journalism, Michelle Malkin.

Posted by: Patrick on March 17, 2003 3:50 PM