In Sunday School this morning we were honored with a real pro talking about the death penalty.
Steve Bright, a Danville native and now president of the Southern Center for Human Rights was talking about some truly dreadful death penalty cases. The big picture of the death penalty doesn't look much better. The people on death row and already executed are almost all poor guys with terrible lawyers. They are criminals, and did horrible things. The injustice is not that they are in prison. The injustice is that rich guys who do the same thing can afford competent lawyers who plead them into life sentences rather than execution. The further injustice is that many of the poor guys committed their crimes in the few places where the prosecutor seeks the death penalty - especially if you live in Houston, the death penalty capital of America.
The most striking sociological point that Bright made was that juries that convict in death penalty cases are mostly in white-flight counties around non-white cities. The fear that led to the flight in the first place gets played out in court when the overwhelmingly white juries sentence to death predominantly non-white vicious criminals with bad lawyers.
I asked if there were any practical way to reserve the death penalty for the most dreadful crimes - Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson. Bright said, in effect, probably not. For one thing, the most dreadful criminals have been able to plead to life imprisonment in exchange for revealing further details of their crimes. For another, more important reason, it is up to the local, elected prosecutor to decide whether to seek the death penalty or not.
As a centrist, I think it would be possible to write a very narrow statute specifying when the death penalty could be sought that would distinguish cold-blooded mass murderers from stoned junkies who shoot clerks in the course of robbing liquor stores. That is a question best addressed by the professionals.
What was clear to me, though, is that even if you think that the death penalty is appropriate in a few rare circumstances, as I do, the current way we use the death penalty is grossly unjust.