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A license to commit murder with impunity.

It is said the best argument for the death penalty is that it metes out justice for the taking of human life. But when the highest court in the land washes its hands of the blood of innocents, the death penalty becomes a dichotomy, and the best argument for it becomes the best argument against it. Who will collect retribution from the state that sheds innocent blood?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that a death-row prisoner who comes up with evidence that could prove his or her innocence, after a specified time limit (only 30 days in some states), has no right as a general rule to be heard by a federal court.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said: "Once a defendant has been afforded a fair trial and convicted of the offense for which he was charged, the presumption of innocence disappears." And now, the chance to prove actual innocence may have disappeared with it.

The most egregious flaw of this ruling is that the state -- which has the authority to prosecute and execute a person for murder -- is answerable to no higher power for committing murder itself.

And once the state obtains a conviction, which it wants more than anything in a capital case, it serves its own best interest to carry out the punishment, no matter what evidence may eventually come to light. Prosecutors, district attorneys and police departments who have to recant on murder cases are hit with a double whammy: They lose the public's trust and they have to renew the search for the murderer. So, of course, they often do not want to hear any new evidence of innocence after conviction.

Another flaw is the "fair trial" fairy tale. Horror stories in jurisprudence are plentiful -- about inexperienced court-appointed defense attorneys who do not know how to search for evidence, about convicts recruited to lie as witnesses in order to serve less time themselves, about evidence being tampered with or mysteriously disappearing.

In one case, a defense attorney returned to the courts some time after his client had been convicted and sentenced to death, and admitted to being on drugs during the trial. He asked for a reversal, but the time limit had run out. The court refused and his client was executed. Maybe the defendant was innocent and maybe not, but the only chance he ever had to prove it was botched by the very system that killed him in the name of justice.

The majority of Americans have clung fast to their support of the death penalty, even when confronted with the usual data that it is not a deterrent, it is administered randomly, it discriminates against African-Americans and the poor, and it is more costly than life imprisonment. They have even grown accustomed to the macabre little benevolence of allowing a condemned man to choose his last meal.

But every time the death penalty is carried out, particularly with such disregard for justice (actual or rationalized), it becomes a mockery of itself. A state that is answerable to no one may execute at will, but who will call us to account for this blood on our hands?
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Title Annotation:capital punishment litigation restrictions
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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