Sunday, November 16, 2008

Beatrice 6 Cements Opposition to Death Penalty

The possibility of mistake makes the death unacceptable.

I was a state senator in 2002 when the Nebraska Legislature addressed a flaw in the state’s death penalty law. It occurred in the wake of a bank robbery in Norfolk in which five people were killed. Nerves were raw and people, including state senators, understandably wanted justice, which for many meant execution of the murderers.

It was not a comfortable time to speak and vote against the death penalty, but I did so because I am a passionate advocate of conservative principles. Conservatives believe in fighting for their principles regardless of circumstances.

I used to support the death penalty. I reject the argument that someone who opposes abortion must oppose the death penalty. It’s apples and oranges. In abortion, the government permits the killing of the most innocent human being imaginable. In the death penalty, the government permits the killing of a human being who has killed another human being. They are completely different moral equations.

The case that flipped me on the death penalty was the murder of Omaha police officer Jimmy Wilson Jr. in 1995.

Wilson stopped a van full of gang members. Somebody jumped out with a semiautomatic rifle and killed Wilson with multiple shots to the chest and head. The evidence initially pointed to Quincy Hughes. However, a diligent prosecutor noticed that some elements of evidence weren’t fitting together properly. Key prosecution witnesses changed their stories and said Kevin Allen fired the deadly shots, not Hughes.

Allen’s lawyer maintains to this day that Allen didn’t do it. He says Hughes or someone else pulled the trigger, but the gang decided it wanted Allen to take the fall, so key witnesses changed their stories.

Allen was convicted and could have received the death penalty. Instead he got life, perhaps because the sentencing judge noted that Allen’s conviction depended on the testimony of witnesses who lied on either the first go-round or the second.

What if those witnesses had not changed their stories and the jury had believed that Hughes was the killer? The wrong person could have been convicted and executed.

Still not convinced? What about the recently exonerated Beatrice 6?

Six innocent people faced the death penalty for a murder they did not commit. They pleaded guilty because the government said it had them nailed, but would let them live if they would give up their liberty. The government used the threat of death to bully innocent citizens into life in prison. As a conservative, that enrages me. 

What if that case had gone to trial and the government had succeeded in getting the defendants convicted and having them executed? At least with the Beatrice 6, they were able to reclaim their lives. Obviously that isn’t possible for citizens who have been executed.

People often say: Let’s have the death penalty for cases in which there is no doubt. That’s no solution. All murder convictions are supposed to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Some cases are close calls. Government sometimes makes mistakes. Innocent people have been executed. As a conservative, I can’t accept the possibility of the government executing an innocent person.

Another question I get is: What if someone raped and murdered your wife and confessed to it? Call it the “Dukakis question,” for those of us old enough to remember 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis bungling that question in a debate.

If that happened, I would want to flip the switch myself on Old Sparky and fry the perpetrator. But we are governed by the rule of law, not emotion, and the rule of law must be applied the same in every case. I don’t get to fry my wife’s killer because someday there will be a murder case in which a conviction relies on the testimony of unstable witnesses, or the government is so desperate for a conviction that it bullies an innocent person into a confession, or wins a trial with evidence that is compelling, but is false and secures a conviction of an innocent defendant.

Again, the possibility of mistake makes the death penalty unacceptable. Lock 'em up for life. That keeps society safe and preserves the possibility of redress if a mistake was made.

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