The Death Penalty—Is it Legal Extortion?


Michael Knight, Columnist and Author; Liz Franklin, Editor

Have you ever been struck by words that were so powerful or alarming that they stopped you dead in your tracks? Sometimes words can reach out and shake us from our day-to-day, unthinking routine. While reading an article recently on Colorado's legislation to abolish their death penalty, I came across such a passage: "Prosecutors say that the threat of the death penalty is an important tool to get the worst criminals to plea to life without parole. It spares the victim's family from a trial."

I stopped. I thought to myself, "that can't be right." I had to reread it. Yes, that's what it said. Let us consider the substance of these sentences. If we consider the basic message of these sentences and remove its superfluous, linguistic padding, the central point reads: "[T]he threat an important tool to get...criminals to plea...It spares...a trial." That's right. Evidently, prosecutors believe that they should be able to threaten defendants with death, not because it is just, not because it is necessary, but because it is convenient and allows them to avoid the hassle of a trial.

(It may be objected that I removed the reference to the victim's family, thus changing the meaning. The main point, however, is that prosecutors wish to avoid these trials, not their alleged motivation for such avoidance. Further, it should be obvious that the truth is more important than subjective feelings. Whether or not the correct person has been apprehended, charged, tried, convicted, sentenced, imprisoned, and possibly executed is quite evidently more important than sparing feelings. That's not being insensitive. It's obvious that executing or punishing an innocent person is a far worse consequence than hurting one's feelings. Regardless, a victim is neither vindicated by the denial of a defendant's right to trial nor by the punishment of the innocent.)

"It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished.-John Adams

This vicious idea goes against everything we learned in school about American government and our criminal courts. Is this not "the land of the free and the home of the brave"? Is it not true, as William Blackstone said, that "the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer"? Or as Benjamin Franklin remarked, "That it is better one hundred guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved." Does not every person accused of a crime deserve his day in court? Those two sentences strike at the very heart of our criminal justice system. They reveal a shocking disdain for the principle of the presumption of innocence and a defendant's right to a trial.

It's outrageous that any lawyer would utter such garbage when it's clear that every citizen has a right to a trial, whether we're talking about shoplifting or murder. A criminal trial is neither a privilege nor a favor from the prosecutor, but a right recognized by our state and federal governments. It is not something that government agents should be striving to undermine or circumvent. No, this cherished principle must be protected.

guilt·y (gĭl′tē)  adj. guilt·i·er, guilt·i·est 

a. Responsible for a reprehensible act; culpable.

b. Found to have violated a criminal law by a jury or judge.

Prosecutors believe that they should be able to threaten a defendant with death in order to avoid the annoyance of a trial. Are we not guaranteed a fair trial, where we are presumed to be innocent and will be convicted only by proof beyond a reasonable doubt that we are guilty? Well apparently not, if this line of thinking is any indication. Prosecutors must believe that the only rights we have are the ones they give us. I must have missed that part in our Constitution.

The argument is as illogical as it is immoral. Why? Because threatening a defendant with a death sentence to scare him into pleading guilty is a tactic that works on both the guilty and the innocent alike. No one, after all, wants to die. The reason there are so many exonerees that initially confessed to a crime they did not commit is precisely because of strong-arm tactics like this. The National Registry of Exonerations lists false confessions as a factor in at least 12% of the documented exonerations. That's 316 false confessions out of 2,567 exonerations since 1989. Since it all but takes a miracle to overturn a criminal conviction in our legal system, I'm confident that the actual number of false confessions is much higher.

If I were threatened with a death sentence unless I pleaded guilty, under such circumstances I cannot guarantee that I would have the courage to stand firm and plead my case before the court. Pleading to save my life, pleading to not be executed by a state that believes in my guilt, pleading to not be murdered for a crime I did not commit, might be my only hope. But it shouldn't be.

Editorial: Polis now has the chance to close the book on Colorado executions

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