Sunday, June 3, 2007

History Can Help Us Understand

The News Leader (Staunton, VA) held a mirror up to its readers when it posed the following question - What can we learn from Virginia's death penalty history?

I suggest that the reflection in the "mirror" is not flattering. But the citizens of Virginia (or any other jurisdiction) can only learn what the State is doing in their name by posing the difficult question and then providing the kind of information found in the article.

Understanding public policies like capital punishment is akin to assembling a large jig-saw puzzle - it is virtually impossbile to see the emerging image with just a few "pieces" (in this instance, the murders, trials, and executions that make it to the evening news or newspaper headlines). It is only when we assemble more pieces that the image begins to reveal itself.

Let's examine the image based on the article. How do the citizens of Virginia feel about having executed more individuals than any other state? What about the execution of juveniles, the mentally ill, and the mentally retarded? National public opinion surveys show low support for executing individuals in these categories, and the U.S. Supreme Court has finally acted to limit ( I am not sure that they have eliminated) these kinds of executions.

The specter of race continues to haunt the application of the death penalty. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to act on information in Georgia that could have saved the petitioner's job, but could not save his life.

There are many more pieces to the death penalty puzzle - quality of defense (including public funding), international treaties, cost, and methods of execution - are just a few of the issues that have yet to be addressed adequately in terms of assessing the effectiveness of death penalty as a crime control policy.

The article poses a question about execution of innocent individuals as murder - a good point to consider as public support nationally for the death penalty contines to decline from its previous levels.

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