Testing the death penalty

by Beacon Staff • January 25, 2006

Those were the final words spoken by Roger Coleman, a convicted killer executed in Virginia in 1992.,"An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven, I hope Americans will realize the injustice of the death penalty, as all other civilized countries have."

Those were the final words spoken by Roger Coleman, a convicted killer executed in Virginia in 1992. Since his death there has been a significant amount of debate over whether Coleman was in fact innocent, which led to a debate about whether proof of his innocence would prove the ineffectiveness of the death penalty in America.

In a country that prides itself on its commitment to life, the idea of capital punishment is hypocritical beyond description.

Earlier this month, former Virginia governor and rumored 2008 presidential candidate Mark Warner ordered new DNA testing intended to determine whether the wrong man was put to death.

The results of those tests, released on Jan. 12, confirmed what the family of the victim was sure of: Coleman brutally raped and murdered his sister-in-law.

Those in favor of capital punishment no doubt breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing the much-anticipated results. Coleman's guilt puts the debate about the death penalty off for another day and seems to confirm the belief that capital punishment is a just system, flawlessly executed.

It should not. Since 1973, 122 people in 25 states have been released from death row based on evidence of their innocence discovered after their conviction. It's frightening to think how many innocent people did not have the benefit of newly found evidence.

There is no doubt that people have been wrongfully executed in the United States. Virtually all of the Western nations have abolished the death penalty. Doing so is a requirement for a country seeking to join the European Union.

This places America alongside some of the countries that are the greatest violators of human rights around the world, including Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria-not quite the side of the fence we typically like to find ourselves. Fortunately, it appears Americans are finally beginning to join the rest of the world in concluding that the death penalty experiment has failed.

A May 2004 Gallup Poll indicates that public support for the option of life imprisonment without parole as an alternative to capital punishment has grown steadily over the years.

Perhaps more importantly, that same survey found that public opinion regarding the death penalty as a deterrent has changed drastically in the past 20 years. Then, Gallup recorded that 61 percent of respondents felt it detered crime.

The 2004 poll found that 62 percent believe it does not. In a 2002 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. In 2005, it similarly banned the execution of minors.

In both cases the majority. as part of their reasoning, cited the growing national consensus against such cruel and unusual forms of punishment.

It's time for those lawmakers who oppose capital punishment to make their case with the same moral certainty as those who support it.

Roger Coleman was guilty of murder in 1992, but there are surely many more executed inmates who were not.

The sooner we, as a nation, recognize this, the closer we'll be to ending the primitive and shameful practice of capital punishment, something we should change before we lecture other countries about human rights.