EDITORIALS: "Mistakes are made"

A recent editorial in Nebraska's Journal Star urged support for a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison. Among the reasons cited for its position was the risk of executing an innocent person. The editorial noted that advancements in DNA testing have shown the fallibility of the current system: “Seventeen people who were on death row have been set free after DNA testing proved they were wrongly convicted.” The editorial also pointed to more than 250 convictions that have been overturned nationwide because of DNA testing, including the Nebraska defendants known as the "Beatrice Six," who were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder but later exonerated through DNA testing. The paper cautioned against supporting the death penalty on the basis of one horrific case: “[E]ven if the system worked without flaw in that particular case, there can be no guarantee that it will work that way every time. And if the system cannot work without error - as the facts show - then the death penalty cannot be justified. Sooner or later, an innocent person will die at the hands of the state of Nebraska." Read full editorial below.

Mistakes flaw death penalty

Debate on the death penalty began in the Legislature last week with Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha homing in on the glaring problem with application of society's ultimate sanction.

People are fallible. As Council put it, "Mistakes are made." Humans cannot devise a system that will operate without error. They never have.

That truth has become devastatingly clear with the advent of DNA testing. Seventeen people who were on death row have been set free after DNA testing proved they were wrongly convicted.

They might have been executed if it were not for the grace of God and scientific advancement.

More than 250 convictions have been overturned nationwide because of DNA testing. In Nebraska, the so-called Beatrice Six who were wrongly convicted in the rape and murder of a Beatrice woman were set free when DNA testing indicated someone else committed the crimes. The DNA evidence on the error rate in the criminal justice system is new information that has come to light within the lifetime of everyone now serving in the State Legislature.

The state senators who have declared themselves in favor of the death penalty should consider the new evidence. The facts show that with the death penalty, innocent people can and will be executed.

Yes, some crimes, such as the slaying of five people in the botched Norfolk bank robbery in 2002, seem so cold-blooded and horrific, and the convictions in the case so certain, that many people believe the perpetrators deserve to die.

But even if the system worked without flaw in that particular case, there can be no guarantee that it will work that way every time. And if the system cannot work without error — as the facts show — then the death penalty cannot be justified. Sooner or later, an innocent person will die at the hands of the state of Nebraska.

In society at large and in the Legislature there are people who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds. "To be pro-life is to respect the dignity of every single human life. Even the damned. Even those who do the indefensible," said Sen. Steve Lathrop.

Those opponents should be joined by those who take into account the new evidence on how often the criminal justice system delivers an incorrect verdict.

Council last week asked for a delay in the debate on the death penalty so that more information can be gathered on the legality of how the state acquired one of its lethal-injection drugs.

We hope senators take the time to re-examine their beliefs and assumptions.

Council's LB276, which would replace the death penalty with life in prison, recognizes the reality of human limitations. It deserves to pass.

("Mistakes Flaw Death Penalty," Nebraska Journal Star, January 29, 2012).  See Innocence and Recent Legislative Activity. Read more Editorials on the death penalty.