Rethinking the Death Penalty


The U.S. justice system will never be able to apply the death penalty in a way that avoids the danger of convicting innocent individuals or eliminates the possibility of serious human rights abuse, says Georgia's former assistant attorney general.

Dorothy Toth Beasley, who defended her state's use of capital punishment in the historic 1972 Furman v Georgia case before the Supreme Court, says the checkered history of death penalty cases in the three decades since makes clear that capital punishment violates American values of equal justice.

“(It) shows the justice system just can't handle it,” Beasley, who is now a senior judge in Georgia, said on this month's Criminal Justice Matters program, aired on CUNY-TV.

“We've tried all kinds of different ways, and we can't get it perfect enough to know that somebody is (not) being executed wrongly, or that the delay is too long—nine, ten, sixteen years.”

Although the Court ruled against Georgia in 1972, the decision was interpreted by legal observers as a nudge to the states to improve their legal procedures for putting people to death. Four years later, the ruling was reversed—and by the late 1970s, 37 states had reintroduced capital punishment with new administrative rules designed to ensure due process of law was followed.

But since then, the use of emerging DNA technology to prove wrongful convictions has illustrated that the system remains flawed—and in the process has increased public doubts about the death penalty, according to Evan Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America.

Mandery, who appeared with Beasley on the Criminal Justice Matters program, suggested that America's High Court would likely outlaw the death penalty today if it were presented with a similar case.

“The Court can't stray very far from public opinion,” Mandery said. “(and) people's concern with error has really driven the decline in support for capital punishment (from a high of 80 percent in the 1980s).”

But Beasley pointed out that the issue ultimately needs to be resolved by the states and by public opinion, rather than nine Supreme Court justices.

“The question is should we have (capital punishment), not whether it's constitutional,” she said, noting that the process and methods now in use by states to execute individuals are inescapably subject to abuse—and even potentially violate America's treaty commitments outlawing torture.

“Our whole system is askew,” she argued.

Also appearing on the program, hosted by The Crime Report Executive Editor Stephen Handelman, was Jesse Wegman of The New York Times editorial board.

To watch the full program, please click HERE.

EDITORS NOTE: for an earlier Q&A with Prof. Mandery about his book, please click HERE.

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