Abolish the federal death penalty

The Trump administration politicized capital punishment, going on an execution spree. They accomplished nothing except to strengthen arguments against the practice.

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Abe Bonowitz, co-director of Death Penalty Action, talks about the efforts to stop the death penalty during the protest of the execution of Corey Johnson on Jan. 14 near the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind.

Joseph C. Garza/The Tribune-Star via AP

The federal government should follow the example of Illinois and abolish the death penalty.

Many people assume the death penalty is reserved for only the most heinous crimes in which the convicted person’s guilt is beyond question. But that’s just not so.

Before Illinois did away with capital punishment 10 years ago this month, the courts overturned 21 such convictions because the evidence was flimsy to nonexistent. Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, for example, were sentenced to die in 1985 for a murder they had nothing to do with. At a second trial, Hernandez was resentenced to 80 years in prison, but Cruz remained on death row and probably would have been executed had an election not changed the composition of the Illinois Supreme Court. Both men ultimately were freed.

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Wrongful convictions happened in Illinois even though this state does a better job than some others of providing indigent defendants with decent public defenders. Some of the worst examples of miscarriages of justice in federal and state courts have been in cases in which defendants were represented by unqualified appointed lawyers. 

After peaking in the 1990s amid the war on drugs, the number of federal executions has been declining. States also are turning away from capital punishment. Only 18 people nationwide were sentenced to death last year, the fewest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty for states in 1976. The federal government reinstated its death penalty in 1988.

In 1972, the court struck down all death penalty laws, deeming them unfair. The laws were rewritten, but still were deemed unfair. Nationwide, one person is freed from death row for every 8.3 who is executed. That’s an alarming indictment. On Feb. 18, the Death Penalty Information Center reported prosecutorial misconduct and false testimony were the biggest causes of wrongful convictions.

In July, the Trump administration launched a blitz of 13 federal executions, underscoring how the death penalty can be a political tool. In February, the Associated Press reported authorities have sanitized descriptions of executions, omitting signs of distress seen by media witnesses. The Trump administration accomplished nothing except to make it clear the power of capital punishment should be taken out of the hands of government.

Many states are doing that. In Virginia, which has executed more people than any other state, Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign a bill ending the death penalty. If he does, capital punishment will have been banned by 23 states. Three other states have moratoriums.

The death penalty can lead not only to the execution of innocents, mostly poor people who have no resources to defend themselves, but it also increases the odds innocent people will be convicted. People opposing the death penalty are excluded from juries, which weeds out potential jurors more apt to acquit.

President Joe Biden opposes the federal death penalty. He and Congress should abolish it.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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