A Fresh Voice Opposing Executions

Article excerpt

A fresh voice opposing executions The Death Penalty On Trial: Crisis in American Justice, by Bill Kurtis. PublicAffairs (Pereus Books Group). 2004. 207 pages. $25.00.

There is a very clear worldwide trend toward the abolition of the death penalty. This trend can be seen regardless of whether measured over a century or a decade, and if anything, the trend seems to be accelerating. In The Death Penalty on Trial, television correspondent Bill Kurtis adds his voice to the growing number of people who, through study and reflection, have come to oppose capital punishment.

A century ago, people were executed for a dozen different capital offenses in the four corners of the United States. Today all executions are for murder, and are disproportionately concentrated in the former states of the Confederacy. In the past few years the Supreme Court has banned executing the mentally retarded and those who committed their crimes before their eighteenth birthdays. Public opinion polls tell us that support for the executioner peaked in the early 1990s; today, given the alternative of life without parole (an alternative available in all death penalty states except Texas and New Mexico), only a minority voice support for capital punishment. Internationally, executioners have been increasingly banned from the shores of most countries, to the point where by the end of 2004 there were 120 abolitionist nations. In 2004, China, Viet Nam, Iran, and the USA carried out 97 percent of all known worldwide executions.

There is no shortage of journalists who have written about their opposition to capital punishment, including Horace Greeley in the mid-1800s and H.L. Mencken some 50 years later. There are also stories of conversion. In the past few years writers ranging from Chicago lawyer Scott Turow to disgraced Los Angeles cop Mark Fuhrman have written about how their opinions on the death penalty changed over the years to where they have now joined the abolitionist forces. Kurtis, trained as a lawyer but employed for the past 30 years as a television journalist, now joins the converted. There are no comparable books where noted figures who were once death penalty abolitionists have moved in the opposite direction.

Kurtis is one of many disciples of Governor George Ryan, a death penalty supporter who was stunned into action in 2000 after finding that in the preceding 15 years, 13 men had been released from death row in Illinois because of innocence. In 2000 Ryan imposed an immediate freeze on executions, established a blue-ribbon committee to study the entire death sentencing process, and in 2003 commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates (and pardoned four others). Like Governor Ryan, Kurtis began to question the benefits of the death penalty after realizing the inevitability of wrongful executions. His studies revealed that erroneous convictions were not the only problem that rests on the shoulders of America's executioners.

The innocence card

Because of the importance of the innocence issue in his own thoughts about the death penalty, Kurtis devotes 80 percent of his book to describing the cases of two death row inmates who were vindicated in 2002: Ray Krone in Arizona (10 years after his conviction) and Thomas Kimball, Jr., in Pennsylvania (six years after he was sent to death row). Both former prisoners are white and middle class, so race and poverty did not play a role in the blunders the way they do in many other cases. For other reasons, however, both men were easy targets.

Krone's conviction for the 1991 stabbing death of a Phoenix bar manager rested on circumstantial evidence, tunnel vision by police detectives and prosecutors, and junk science. A bite mark "expert" told the jury that Krone's teeth impressions matched bite marks on the victim. The out-matched and over-spent (though well-intentioned) defense attorney could do little to challenge the claim. But because the prosecution had improperly waited until the last minute to turn over crucial evidence to the defense, in 1995 Krone won a new trial from the Arizona Supreme Court. …