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March 21, 2014

"Why conservatives should oppose the flawed death penalty, too"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Salon commentary authored by Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford and Alex Gibney. Here are excerpts:

For the last two decades, each of us has examined the criminal justice system in our own work. And so with the political debate over capital punishment once again intensifying, we came together this past year to explore the human dramas inside this institution – from cases resulting in exonerations to those still in limbo to those involving indisputable guilt. In the process, we discovered disturbing patterns that reveal systemic problems. These include:

Arbitrariness: A convict’s chances of ending up on death row today depend as much on the crime as on the convict’s race and geographic location. This was most recently documented by a University of Maryland study of Harris County, Texas. This one area in greater Houston has executed more people than any other state in the country. County data showed African American defendants were three times more likely to face the death penalty than similarly situated white defendants. Additionally, African Americans were more than twice as likely as similarly situated whites to receive death sentences from juries....

Law enforcement misconduct: Cases of suppressed evidence often exemplify how the quest for death penalty convictions can foster a culture of unaccountable lawlessness inside the justice system. And as we discovered in our investigation of the John Thompson case in New Orleans, such a culture can become almost impossible to curtail....

Cost: When accounting for pretrial hearings, trials, appeals, security and prison expenses, the death penalty costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Spending that much money on capital punishment costs lives. Why? Because those resources are being diverted from potentially lifesaving programs that could put more police officers on the street, investigate cold cases and prevent recidivist crime.

Failure to deter crime: If the death penalty was deterring crime, perhaps its costs could be justified. But there is far more evidence that it is failing to deter crime. For example, the aggregate homicide rate in death penalty states has been consistently higher than the rate in non-death-penalty states.Likewise, a survey of the nation’s criminologists found 88 percent saying that capital punishment does not deter crime....

As most recently evidenced by the Obamacare websites, the most straightforward government tasks often involve errors and imperfections. Even the most ardent law-and-order conservatives should be able to admit the same truism applies to the government-administered death penalty. If we cannot blindly trust the government to safeguard health, can we trust it to administer death?

Whether Democratic or Republican, legislators can no longer ignore the fatal flaw in the justice system.  At a minimum, we must insist that they find a way to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct that canl — if intentional — amount to premeditated murder. More broadly, we should insist that lawmakers face the most harrowing question from all of our death row stories: if the institution of capital punishmentl — with consequences so final and irreversible — can never be a perfect instrument of criminal justice, is the institution itself a criminal injustice?

March 21, 2014 at 04:47 PM | Permalink


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You gotta love it when such conservative stalwarts as Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford and Alex Gibney tell us "why conservatives should oppose the flawed death penalty."

This article could more aptly be titled, "Why Do Hollywood Has-Beens Recycle Ancient Arguments?"

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 21, 2014 5:52:00 PM

I would agree that everyone should oppose a execution regime that is flawed. I doubt there would even be much disagreement on that.

Whether what we currently have in the US is flawed or not, however, is at the very heart of the disagreement (the only other major issue being whether the state should impose death as the result of any crime). The only 'flaw' I see in what we do now is that we do not have the option of executing vastly more offenders than the few that do meet that end.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 21, 2014 7:37:27 PM

Bill - very partial of your Hollywood favorites. Did you sneer so charmingly at the views of Regan and Schwarzenegger?

Posted by: peter | Mar 22, 2014 5:25:28 AM

I think there is a reasonable 'conservative' argument against the death penalty, but Redford and Sarandon are not really the people I would have give it.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 22, 2014 10:55:43 AM

peter --

"Very partial of your Hollywood favorites. Did you sneer so charmingly at the views of Regan and Schwarzenegger?"

Regan was never in Hollywood. He was CEO of Merrill Lynch before he joined the Administration. As a much younger man, he dropped out of Harvard Law School to join the Marines in WWII. In other words, he was, as you would say, an American bloodluster.

What were you doing then? Sipping tea at Cambridge?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 22, 2014 1:32:39 PM

Bill - maybe his biographers got carried away, or you fell asleep when reading it? (or maybe my mispelling of his name caused confusion with another - if so, apologies):
"In 1937, Reagan signed a seven-year contract with the Warner Brothers movie studio. Over the next three decades, he appeared in more than 50 films. Among his best-known roles was that of Notre Dame football star George Gipp in the 1940 biopic Knute Rockne, All American. Another notable role was in the 1942 film Kings Row, in which Reagan portrays an accident victim who wakes up to discover his legs have been amputated and cries out, "Where's the rest of me?"

Posted by: peter | Mar 22, 2014 4:26:36 PM

Bill is referring to Donald Regan, who was Treasury Secretary and then White House Chief of Staff under Ronald Reagan.

I suspect that Bill knew that peter's reference was meant to be Ronald Reagan, and not Donald Regan, seeing as how Schwarzenegger was also mentioned. But he decided to be a pedant and talk about Regan instead of Reagan.

Posted by: PDB | Mar 22, 2014 6:09:46 PM

Conservatives should favor the death penalty for many reasons-one of which is that it occupies a lot of liberal energy.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 22, 2014 6:30:13 PM

PDB --

Please forgive me for taking peter, a well-educated man, at his word as referring to a powerful and well-known figure, rather than guessing that he meant someone else.

Of course if I had guessed "Reagan," you would have come back, "There's Bill Otis again, too stupid or careless to read what's plainly written."

P.S. If you'd care to tell me about any argument Sarandon et al. put forth that hasn't been made for the last 40 years or so, or that they couldn't have copied out of Wikipedia, I'll be happy to be enlightened.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 22, 2014 11:12:42 PM

Live by the typo, die by the typo.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 23, 2014 2:07:58 PM

! "A convict’s chances of ending up on death row today depend as much on the crime as on the convict’s race..." !

▼ Not so much, but since the proportion of *black* death row murderers is lower
than the proportion of convicted black single-victim murderers,
a scumbag’s chance of not “ending up on death row today” is better IF HE IS “African American”.

! “As most recently evidenced by the Obamacare websites…”!

▼ Sah’wee-eat! So, Sarandon et al are advancing the return of health care to the private sector.
How’s ‘bout as soon as she and company author a Salon commentary on the repeal of Obamacare, we conservatives will “oppose the flawed death penalty”!

The 'take-away' is that these enlightened ones, Sarandon, Redford and Gibney must not be blinded by
“the religion and prejudice,
… superstition and ignorance,” of conservatives, lucidly. {Sourcebook of Criminal Stats, 12/09/09}

Posted by: Adamakis | Mar 24, 2014 10:43:50 AM

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