Trump’s hurry to execute people undermines any argument for capital punishment

No federal prisoner has been executed during a presidential transition in 100 years, but Trump wants to carry out all the executions he can before Joe Biden, who campaigned against the death penalty, takes office.

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The Coliseum, a worldwide symbol of opposition to capital punishment, is illuminated in a demonstration against the death penalty in Rome on Monday.

Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP

President Donald Trump’s unprecedented rush to execute prisoners in his administration’s waning days illustrates a big part of what’s wrong with the death penalty. It is politicized, arbitrary and unjust.

Most Americans, polls show, assume the death penalty is reserved for those whose guilt is beyond doubt. But time and again, we learn of people who never should have been sentenced to death. Either there were serious extenuating circumstances that should have been taken into account, or the defendant later was found to have had nothing to do with the underlying crime.

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Trump and Attorney General William Barr have overseen eight executions since July, ending a 17-year hiatus on federal capital punishment. They have scheduled five more executions before Trump leaves the White House on Jan. 20, which would make 2020 the year with the most federal executions on record.

The political urgency behind this rush to kill is obvious. No federal prisoner has been executed during a presidential transition in 100 years, but Trump and Barr want to carry out all the executions they can before President-elect Joe Biden, who campaigned against the death penalty, takes office.

In 1989, Trump, who was then just an attention-seeking real estate developer, offered up a pretty good example of how the death penalty gets politicized when he took out full-page ads in four New York newspapers calling for a resumption of capital punishment in New York State. Trump was outraged by an assault on a white woman jogger in New York’s Central Park, a crime for which five African American teens had been arrested but not yet charged. Years later, based on new testimony and DNA evidence, the convictions of all five men were vacated, but Trump — widely blamed for inflaming public opinion in the case — has never apologized.

Now Trump is at it again. He’s pushing hard to have as many inmates on federal death rows executed before he leaves office, even as he pardons political allies who have been convicted of crimes. It is the kind of political grandstanding that has undermined any argument for the death penalty all along.

It’s hard to argue that each of the inmates scheduled for execution is getting a careful last-minute review, which is crucial. Consider the case of Derrick Jamison, a Cincinnati man who served 20 years in prison for a 1984 murder before new evidence exonerated him. At one point, Jamison was 90 minutes away from being executed.

An arbitrary system

It’s also hard to argue that each of the people now on death row still would have received the death penalty had their cases been tried by different judges, different juries or different prosecutors in different jurisdictions. Study after study have shown that race, geography, the quality of defense lawyers and a defendant’s mental health are determining factors in who is sentenced to death in this country — it’s largely a matter of plain bad luck. Since 1986, the majority of state-level executions have taken place in just 2% of U.S. counties.

Yes, the crimes for which people have been put on death row are unspeakably horrific — including in those cases in which the Trump administration has executed or plans to execute inmates. But the crimes for which people were sentenced and later exonerated were often equally unspeakable. And the crimes for which some inmates catch a break while others do not — because of the color of their skin or the shabbiness of their defense — are equally unspeakable.

After years of attempted reforms and promises, the United States should accept the reality that we are unable to devise a system of capital punishment that executes only the guilty. Any safeguards we put in place are likely to crumble when anger and passion over a heinous crime cloud our collective judgment. False confessions, mistaken eyewitnesses, witness perjury, withheld evidence, bogus “expert” testimony and simple coincidences also lead to mistaken verdicts.

172 exonerations

When a careful re-examination of a case, or new evidence such as DNA testing, frees an innocent person who has been on death row, defenders of capital punishment like to say: “See, the system works.” That is rubbish. Are we to expect that star-studded teams of volunteer defense lawyers or new evidentiary breakthroughs will come along in the nick of time to rescue every wrongfully convicted person?

Since 1973, 172 wrongfully convicted death row prisoners have been exonerated, including 21 in Illinois, which has abolished the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That is a horrifying number. People sentenced to the alternative — life in prison — can be freed if they are later found to be innocent. But executions are final.

The states have been moving away from the death penalty for years. Capital punishment is illegal in 22 states, and there is a governor’s moratorium in three others. No solid evidence has proved the death penalty deters crime.

Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court should ban capital punishment on the federal level as well.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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