by David Corn
don't like polls. Several a day cross my desk, and I try not to cite them too frequently. It's not only because much lazy journalism relies on polls. It's that too often polls attempt hard-and-fast measurements of public opinion when popular attitudes are inconsistent and defy rational characterization. As the cliche goes, it depends on how you craft the question.
Having stated all that, I want to draw attention to a recent CBS poll regarding the death penalty (or, as it should be called, Big Government executions). The basic numbers followed recent trends. Two-thirds of the 1,063 adults (a reasonable sampling, as far as polls go) said they backed capital punishment, while one-quarter opposed it. (Support for the death penalty has been slowly declining. A 1997 Harris poll found 75 percent favored executions.) And when respondents were asked whether convicted killers should be offed or thrown into the slammer for life with no chance of parole, the split was 45 to 41 percent, a most narrow victory for the Grim Reaper.
But what was more intriguing was a different query: "Some have said a problem with the death penalty is innocent people may be executed. How often do you think that happens?" Twelve percent said "a lot." Seventy-four percent said "a little." Only 10 percent said "not at all." That means 84 percent -- give or take the 3-percent margin of error -- believe that occasionally capital punishment claims the wrong person. Simple math, then, leads to the conclusion that at least 50 percent -- and probably more -- support the death penalty while assuming that innocent people are being put to death. In other words, these citizens are willing to see a few misconvicted Americans executed in order to stick it those who really did kill. Well, you gotta break eggs...
The good news is that there does appear to be a growing unease with the death penalty. Every few weeks another tale breaks of a person convicted of a serious offense who, it turns out, was innocent, according to a new review of DNA evidence. Last year, the record-setting number of executions in Texas became a presidential campaign issue. Dave Letterman showed no mercy in cracking jokes about George W. Bush's embrace of capital punishment -- 152 executions in six years. In debates and interviews, Bush repeated his mantra that the system works just fine. Yet these days that doesn't seem to be consensus in Texas. Lawmakers in the Texas House and Senate are considering several capital punishment reforms. In play are measures to bar the executions of convicted killers who are mentally retarded or under the age of 18 and legislation to improve the quality of court-appointed lawyers assigned to defend people accused of capital crimes. The bills are faring surprisingly well at the moment. If the convict -'em -and -execute -'em system operated smoothly under Bush, why the need for change?
The Friends of the Chair (or, that should be, the Gurney, since lethal injection is now considered the civilized choice) did expect to be bolstered by the case of Timothy McVeigh, which has dominated the debate over the death penalty this spring. And last month, with the execution of the mass-murderer approaching, many death penalty opponents -- who previously were buoyed by shifts in the debate -- were hunkering down, assuming that McVeigh's awful crime and unrepentant confession made a perfect commercial for the pro-execution side. They were waiting for this ill wind to blow by. Then the FBI came to the rescue.
revelation that the Bureau had not turned over thousands of pages of material to the McVeigh defense (as it was compelled to do) provided one more example of how the legal system can screw up a capital punishment case. As Senator Russ Feingold, a death penalty foe, said on the Senate floor, "The FBI's belated release of these thousands of documents highlights the fact that the federal government's administration of the death penalty, even in the most highly scrutinized of cases, is fallible....If this kind of gross failure can occur in a case managed by the most competent, professional law enforcement agency of which we know, doubts must arise with regard to the government's ability in every capital case." At a House hearing featuring the departing FBI Director Louis Freeh, Representative Patrick Kennedy -- who ran for Congress as a death penalty supporter but who has changed his position -- argued that capital punishment is "disproportionately applied to black people and that innocent people have been wrongly sentenced to death," and he blasted Freeh and the Bureau: "If we can't even get Timothy McVeigh right, how are we supposed to get the millions of others who are going through our justice system with little or no spotlight on their cases...right?" Freeh replied, "There is no danger that an innocent Timothy McVeigh is going to be punished." But that was not the point. McVeigh was no longer in the dock; the national execution state was.
The gurney has turned, and the McVeigh case now offers ammunition to those who decry state-sponsored killing. If only his execution -- should it come to pass -- were publicly broadcasted.
There certainly is the public interest. Consider the 1600 journalists who were flocking to Indiana for the event. As others have suggested, televising executions might force some death penalty supporters to confront the gray horror of Big Government executions. Perhaps. Could the widespread viewing of an execution and the attendant (and sure-to-be-nauseating) media spectacle actually cause people to conclude capital punishment is a practice worthy of a supposedly great and democratic nation?
The argument against such reality-TV fare is that it would be too gruesome, a debasement of the culture. Think of the children. No doubt, there is something unseemly and primitive about public executions. But the obvious response is that government, in general, should not be engaged in conduct that cannot bear full exposure. We can make rare exceptions for, say, true national security secrets, but not for matters of taste. Americans who support capital punishment may not want to see it on television (just as veal aficionados may not want to watch a documentary on the slaughter of calves). Let them switch the channel to a World Wrestling Federation match. But those citizens who wish to argue against the death penalty by showing the savagery and dishonor of government executions should have the opportunity to do so.
Would this lead to a further coarsening of the culture? Ponder that CBS poll that indicates most death penalty supporters accept wrongful executions. How coarser can you get? Let these capital punishment backers see what it would look like when an innocent person is strapped in and killed by bureaucrats.
Moreover, killing McVeigh in revenge, if not coarse, is damn obvious. What uplifting message does it send? Is it a deterrent to other maniacal anti-government patriots planning to blow up federal office buildings? (Appea ring on the Letterman show last year, Bush acknowledged that it was difficult to prove capital punishment prevents crime.) Imagine if the McVeigh jury had declared, "You have been found guilty of murdering 168 men, women and children. But because we, as members of a civilized society, consider life precious, we won't even take the life of a scumbag like you. But we will take away your freedom. Forever." What a way that would be to sandpaper one coarse edge of the culture.
May 21, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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