Saturday, May 04, 2002

THOUGHTS ON DINING from the Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web."

Death Is Irrevocable. So Is Life.

Several readers took issue with our Friday remarks on capital punishment (Those remarks: A judge said Thursday he was ready to declare the federal death penalty unconstitutional unless government lawyers could explain why so many condemned inmates turn out to be innocent," MSNBC reports. This even though there is no evidence that any innocent person has actually been executed in America since at least 1950). Judge Jed Rakoff threatened to declare the federal death penalty unconstitutional because some people sentenced to death have later been exonerated. By this reasoning, we argued, imprisonment would also be unconstitutional, since innocent people have spent time behind bars.

The readers' retort was that the death penalty is different; as the ACLU puts it, "Unlike all other criminal punishments, the death penalty is irrevocable." This seems like an obvious point, but it's actually much less compelling in practice than in theory.

It is of course true that a sentence of death is irrevocable--once it's been carried out. But the same is true of a prison term or any other deprivation of liberty. In Massachusetts, a state that lacks capital punishment, Gerald Amirault has been in prison on phony child-abuse charges since 1986. If he were freed tomorrow, he would still have irrevocably lost 16 years in the prime of his life.

To be sure, if Amirault had been executed instead of imprisoned in 1986, all hope for any measure of justice in his case would have been extinguished. But America's justice system does not execute criminals hastily. In practice, a death sentence amounts to a long prison term during there are ample opportunities for an innocent inmate to exonerate himself, or for a judge to discover or contrive a technical problem with the original trial and invalidate the sentence, if not the conviction.

Contrary to the ACLU, a death sentence in America is actually more revocable than a prison term. "Because of the complexity and the potential punishment, defendants in death penalty cases are in some jurisdictions afforded better than average lawyers and greater than average resources," acknowledges David Feige of the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit criminal-defense law firm, in a New York Times op-ed. "Many appellate courts look more closely at a case when the defendant has been sentenced to die."

In 1997 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered that Gerald Amirault stay in prison in the interest of "finality." Would the court have been so untroubled by the punishment of an innocent man if his life, rather than just his freedom, had been at stake?