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Death Penalty

I often get questions from family and friends about cases in the media, especially death penalty cases. I don’t want to discuss the merits of whether or not we should have a death penalty; instead, I want to focus on process itself. People almost universally get upset over the cost and time of such cases. No doubt it is frustrating to hear about someone who committed a heinous crime and received expensive legal representation for free, and I certainly think that the system could be streamlined. I’ve heard numerous times that “we all know he (or she) is guilty, why can’t we just execute them immediately” or “why do we have to pay for their defense.” While the complete answer to the question would involve a long discussion about the legal mechanisms surround the death penalty and the development of the constitutional right to counsel over the last century, I like to tell people about what I think is the silver lining to the incredibly complex and expensive nature of death penalty cases.

We want to ensure the right person is executed because the decision is permanent. In death penalty cases we have automatic appeals because we want to be absolutely sure we have the right person. A DNA test that later proves the person is innocent is meaningless if we’ve already executed someone. Even more importantly, all people (including guilty people) deserve a fair trial. That thought often bothers people, but I believe it is the cornerstone of our justice system. All persons are presumed innocent, and each person gets the same opportunities to defend themselves at trial. The prosecutor is required to convince the jury of the accused person’s guilt. A person isn’t guilty under the law until a jury says “guilty.” While the presumed innocence concept often seems like a legal fiction in a case that is covered by the media long before the trial starts, our system is designed so that both sides fight as hard as possible with the presumption that after the battle is fought the truth will be evident.

Even with all these safeguards, we still get it wrong more often that people think. As of 2002, 110 people had been freed from death row because of by DNA evidence. Could we create a more efficient system? Sure. Could we execute people we are all pretty sure are guilty and save several millions of dollars a year? Sure. Many countries have developed very quick systems for executing people; the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia to name a few. I sure wouldn’t want to live in those places, and I don’t want to live in a country that kills people without being more than pretty sure. In my opinion, one of the best things about America’s legal system is our willingness to put fairness above efficiency.

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