The execution of Saddam Hussein has brought the death penalty into a new focus. Not a sharp focus, mind you—the grainy, wavy, distorted focus of the cell-phone video footage uploaded on YouTube. Somehow, that murkiness is only fitting considering the issue.
Killing is never a clean business. The line between justice and vengeance blurs easily. Did Saddam’s hanging bring a sense of resolution? Did it provide Iraqis some closure that wouldn’t have come had he spent the rest of his life in a prison cell? Continued violence suggests harm has offset any healing.
At least the execution was quickly executed. Hussein got sentenced Nov. 5. Iraq’s High Tribunal upheld the verdict Dec. 28 and set a 30-day window for the punishment. His appeals exhausted, the deposed despot was hanged two days later.
Justice (or vengeance) is not so swift in this country, particularly in this state. After a capital case’s automatic review, the defendant then has the right to other appeals, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Years—decades—often pass between the first trial and the ultimate outcome.
How much of a deterrent does the death penalty pose when it becomes, in essence, a life sentence? How much more pain and suffering does it inflict when wounds can’t heal for a quarter-century?
An appeals court judge in California recently posed these questions. In his concurring opinion regarding Barnett vs. Superior Court of Butte County, Justice Rick Sims flatly states that “opponents of the death penalty have won. This fixation with attempting to provide perfect justice has emasculated the death penalty in California.”
I happen to oppose capital punishment, for a number of reasons—first and foremost because there is no “perfect justice,” no ironclad insurance against wrongful conviction. But if we as a society have decided that killing an innocent is a risk worth taking, then we might as well carry pragmatism to the next logical level.
Forensic scientists have made amazing advances. Indeed, evidence from a number of 20th-century crimes has yielded new conclusions when tested with 21st-century equipment. So I’m not saying we should eliminate those appeals.
But as technology progresses, the law should progress. Streamline the process. Set a starting point—maybe 2010, or 2012—when comprehensive overviews would replace incremental appeals.
Science isn’t everything, of course. It can’t redress social inequities. Public defenders can’t mount the same defense as a hotshot attorney with a deep-pocketed client. That makes capital-case review all the more crucial.
As we showed in a cover story last year ("In the shadow of death,” April 13), cells on death row are hardly suites at the Ritz-Carlton. They just cost as much. Leaving people to languish there makes little sense if we’re not reducing time and expense and the number of wrongful convictions.
A rush to justice is bad, but a crawl to justice isn’t much better.