Feb. 2, 2001, 7:13PM
Houston Chronicle

System is fair, just; no to a moratorium

By DUDLEY SHARP III

There have been a great many attacks against both Texas and the United States because of our use of the death penalty for our most vile criminals. Such attacks are unwarranted.

The complaint that Texas executes too many murderers is a straw man. Those who oppose execution do so regardless of the numbers involved. From sentencing to execution, Texas now takes nearly 13 years to execute capital murderers, a period of time longer than the national average. In addition, Texas has a 15 percent rate of overturning those cases on appeal, a rate less than half of the national average of 33 percent. Far from any rush to judgment, what we see in Texas is a careful and reflective effort to seek justice in these most difficult of cases.

Nationally, there is a growing movement to have moratoriums on the death penalty. As the anti-death penalty movement has made clear, such is but a prelude to getting rid of the death penalty. Nationally, that time is now about 12 years from sentence to execution. A time extension is hardly merited.

Concern for innocents convicted and racism appear to be two main issues within the moratorium movement.

Uncorroborated claims by the anti-death penalty movement find that 90 inmates have been exonerated since the beginning of the modern death penalty in 1973. A careful review of those cases shows that no distinction has been made between the factual innocence (the truly, "I didn't do it" cases) and the legally innocent (the "I got off because of legal issues").

Big difference. By various anti-death penalty sources, it appears that the factual innocent convicted are really in the 20-40 range, or approximately 0.4 percent of the 7,000 sentenced to death since 1973. It is unlikely that there is any other criminal sanction in the world that has a better record of convicting the guilty and in identifying and freeing the allegedly factually innocent.

Many of the world's social and government institutions put innocents at risk. Yet, I am aware of only one -- the U.S. death penalty -- that has no proof of an innocent executed since 1900. Paroles, probations, pretrial releases and mandatory releases have resulted in hundreds of thousands of innocents being harmed or killed while such criminals were under "supervision." Most recently, and historically, we also note the terror and death visited upon innocent citizens by those criminals who escape from prison. It appears that there are many other pressing criminal justice practices which put many more innocents at risk and which do, in fact, result in extraordinary loss of life.

In fact, under all debated scenarios, many more innocents would be put at risk by not executing.

Historically, charges of racism with the U.S. criminal justice have been accurate. But not so with the modern death penalty. White murderers are twice as likely to be executed as are black murderers and are also executed 15 months more quickly than black death row inmates. A 1991 Rand Corp. study, a 1994 Smith College study, as well as a review of murders within capital circumstances, reveals that the foundation for being sentenced to death is the crime itself.

Finally, there is the external criticism which we receive from foreign nations, primarily from Europe. A recent article from the liberal New Republic confirms that the majority of the European population does support executions for vile crimes. So those European nations which condemn us do so from a nondemocratic position, with regard to that sanction. Furthermore, the European Union, a force for uniting European countries into a united economic bloc, requires abandonment of execution as a requirement for benefiting from EU membership. However, there is no ban to executions during wartime. In other words, the EU has no position to criticize U.S. use of executions, for they do exactly as do we -- that is, select execution as a punishment option under a very limited circumstance.

While improvements can be made to any system, such should be studied within the light of fact, not shrouded by the false claims of those whose goal is to abolish the death penalty.

 


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