October 13, 2012 http://www.nola.com/
Three stories — or, more accurately, two stories and a column — have led to thoughts about that ever contentious issue, the death penalty.
The first was a justice corkscrew at Tulane and Broad detailed by reporter John Simerman, a tale of shifting heroes and villains. In it, a rapist was briefly represented by the Innocence Project, a prominent arm of the anti-death penalty movement that has a strong case — namely, not every person on death row is guilty. Yet for reasons I can’t fully understand, I don’t find that reason to dispose of the death penalty. In part, this view may be colored by the Innocence Project’s paladin, Gary Scheck, who proclaims DNA evidence infallible. Which it may be, unless the blood of two murder victims is splattered all over O.J. Simpson’s car and house, in which case the DNA was planted or contaminated, as Scheck argued while springing The Juice.
I could have sworn O.J. did it, but that’s what high-priced defense lawyers do, I suppose, and it’s true Scheck’s work elsewhere has freed some innocent men from a living hell on death row.
In fact, the column in question is just that sort of case. Damon Thibodeaux was sent to Angola’s death row for raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl under the Huey P. Long Bridge in 1996. Problem was, Thibodeaux didn’t do the crime and the Innocence Project helped prove it. Consequently, Thibodeaux was freed last month, and Denny LeBoeuf, formerly of the Death Penalty Resource Center in New Orleans, penned an op-ed about it for The Times-Picayune.
Thibodeaux’s case hinged on a bogus confession, a thing LeBoeuf pointed out talented law enforcement officers constantly guard against. Yet here we have a man — not guilty — dreading the lethal needles the state planned to plunge into his veins. He has escaped the jaws of death, which is all to the good, and whether one finds that alone reason to halt executions, there is no gainsaying the argument in favor of them is now diminished.
Thibodeaux can’t be made whole any more than the family of the girl who was killed, but does the death penalty’s existence mean similar tragedies won’t be visited on others? Here we turn to the death penalty’s supposed deterrent properties.
And here we turn to the other recent story, reporter Claire Galofaro’s magisterial three-part tale of the men accused of gunning down two St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff’s deputies and wounding two more. These alleged warped souls floated across the landscape from Nebraska to Louisiana like modern Charles Starkweathers, apparently willing, even eager, to kill.
Was the death penalty any sort of deterrent to these seething misfits? Has the fear of the death penalty — a sentence quite real in New Orleans and Louisiana — in any way crimped the appalling violence that sends so many New Orleanians to an early grave?
Well, it may have — that’s a hard one to gauge — but if it has, the impact has been marginal at best. The argument in favor of execution shrinks again.
So we appear to have but one plank left in favor of executions: the succor it may provide crime victims’ survivors. Here most of us, thankfully, are at sea because thus far we’ve been spared that nightmare.
That’s always seemed one of the best arguments in favor of execution while simultaneously the most disquieting. Where does the state — why does the state — become an instrument of retribution? There are Biblical passages supporting the death penalty as a legal recourse, but are these life and death matters not better left in God’s hands? Doesn’t the death penalty then skirt dangerously close to revenge killing, a thing civilized society should shun?
I don’t presume to speak for victims’ families, but years of covering capital cases and witnessing two executions at Angola have shown me that seeking a death for a death is not uniform among them. The quality of their mercy is an awesome, humbling thing, and one it seems to me should be embraced.
So what do we have: Guilty? Not always. Deterrent? Unlikely. Morally? Dubious. LeBoeuf is correct: the death penalty should be abolished.
James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.