Thursday, August 17, 2006

No Tears for Palmer, but I Still Oppose the Death Penalty

The grim reaper took convicted murderer Charles Jess Palmer before the electrocutioner could. I feel sympathy for whatever twisted emotions the victim's family might experience. I feel none for Palmer. I wish his victim had been able to kill Palmer before Palmer could kill him.

But I'm still against the death penalty.

I was for the death penalty until the murder of Omaha Police Officer Jimmy Wilson Jr. in 1995.

You would think a shotgun blast to the face of a cop by a gang thug who jumped out of a van at a traffic stop would solidify someone's support for the death penalty. It was the way the case unfolded that put me off the death penalty.

The early evidence and media coverage focused on Quincy Hughes, a reputed gang member who had a criminal record and would have future dealings with law enforcement. However, a conscientious prosecutor scrutinized the evidence and discovered some discrepancies.

Investigators reexamined two teenage witnesses crucial to the case. They flipped. They changed their stories to indentify Kevin Allen as the shooter. There were dynamics involving friendships and gang ties that could have influenced the witnesses.

The prosecution determined that they lied the first time and told the truth the second time.

When it comes to death, that's not good enough for me. The judicial panel that reviewed the case sentenced Allen to life in prison rather than death. Hey, if the guy blew a cop's head off, he is a prime candidate for the death penalty. If anybody should get it, Allen should. Perhaps the judges hedged because of a nagging concern that Allen was chosen to be the fall guy.

I'm against the death penalty because of the possibility of error. What if the prosecutor in the Wilson case had not been so thorough? What if the key witnesses had not changed their stories and identified a different trigger man? It is quite conceivable that the wrong person might have been convicted and sentenced to death.

Indeed, it has happened in other states. It's not hard to imagine future cases in which savvy witnesses have all the bases covered in their stories and conspire to have an innocent party take the fall.

If a victim or anyone else can apply deadly force to a would-be murderer and stop him in the act, that's great. Once the threat of death has passed and a suspect is in custody -- once it's too late to save the victim -- then the risk and the consequence of convicting the wrong person make the death penalty unacceptable.

People say some cases are slam dunks in which the murderer's identity is clear. But a law has to apply across the board to all cases, not selectively to the "easy" cases. We should let murderers such as Palmer live until nature runs it course not to accommodate them; we do it to accommodate some person who might be wrongly convicted but is able to get his life back because the mistake is discovered and rectified. That, too, has happened in other states.

The only way to eliminate the risk of executing the wrong person is not to execute at all.

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