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Pride and Prejudice: Human Frailty and the Irreversibility of Capital Punishment

30 Jun

On Friday, June 28 the UN held its second annual event to highlight key elements of efforts to eliminate the death penalty as a viable punitive option for states.   The event sought to call specific attention to the problem of wrongful convictions, a problem impacting many attempts to punish violators of the law, but especially in instances of capital crimes, as there is simply no way to reverse punishment which results in loss of life.

As UN Secretary General, Ban ki-Moon noted in his opening remarks, there have been welcome efforts in several countries (and in some US states) to reduce and/or eliminate the practice of capital punishment.   However, the practice still exists in a number of member states, and there is concern that others might be tempted to roll back hard commitments to eliminate this practice, something that this event was designed to help avoid.  The SG wisely called for a “series debate” on capital punishment in those states that have so far refused to abolish capital punishment.

The event was organized by the Office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and provided an excellent case study as to why wrongful convictions are so problematic in countries that sanction at least the possibility of executions. The event featured a film clip of “West of Memphis,” the critically acclaimed documentary that follows the events of the so-called “West Memphis Three,” who were arrested for the murders of three 8-year old children in 1993 and imprisoned more than 18 years, before being released with the introduction of new DNA evidence. One of those wrongfully convicted, Damien Echols, who was actually sentenced to death, was among the experts on the panel, along with his attorney.  His reflections on treatment he received at the hands of Arkansas prosecutors, prison guards and others was a chilling reminder of how sloppy police work leads to wrongful convictions and a host of subsequent abusive practices.

One of the important contributions of this event is the degree to which legal prosecutions are potentially compromised by a host of factors – including the careers of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, persons occupying important professional positions who maintain uncomfortably ‘cozy’ relationships in some US states and other countries.  “We’ve never sent an innocent person to prison,” we have heard from law enforcement officials,” a refrain that continues even after DNA evidence contradicts original judicial findings.  Especially in high profile cases, the emotional and political pressure to convict often exceeds the evidence with which to convict.  As more than one speaker at the event noted, judges and prosecutors don’t get re-elected because they set people free.  They get re-elected by putting people behind bars — whether they deserve to be there or not.

In many life circumstances, we encounter people who have strong convictions based on flimsy evidence.  The need to ‘make up one’s mind’ trumps the need to make the best judgment possible based on existing evidence.   A corollary to this is the unwillingness to allow judgments once made to adapt to changing circumstances.   Parents, for instance, often make good decisions about the way to raise their pre-school child, but some of these decisions will inevitably and rightly evolve as the child moves through stages of development.  Mature judgments are held hostage neither by pride nor prejudice, but by the need to make the best possible choices based on shifting circumstances.

This tendency to ‘rush to judgment’ coupled with a compelling need to defend such judgments and maintain career reputations make for a shaky circumstance when it comes to any policy work, but even more when it comes to capital punishments. The more any punishment approaches irreversibility, the higher the guarantees we must offer regarding the objectivity and integrity of trials.   All relevant evidence gathering must be encouraged and then heeded even once an initial judgment is rendered.   In criminal matters, it seems ironic that opportunities for identifying and overturning wrongful convictions were provided not so much by jurists but by scientists working on DNA coding.  Some of that scientific discipline – specifically the ability to resist reaching past the limits of available, credible evidence – should be mandatory for criminal justice professionals as well.

GAPW remains deeply concerned about the trend in so many areas of policy to blatantly taint sound judgment with personal pride and institutional prejudice.  In the case of capital punishment, we will continue to engage strong partners – especially FIACAT and the World Coalition against the Death Penalty – as part of broader efforts to ensure that flexible, evidence-based policy becomes the norm in both domestic and international contexts.


Dr. Robert Zuber