Thursday, February 26, 2009


The Chicago Tribune has distinguished itself with its stories on Carlos De Luna - a man who was executed by the State of Texas for the murder of Gas Station clerk Wanda Lopez;

The Tribune, which also distinguished itself in its investigative reporting on the Cameron Todd Willingham case, published a three-part special report - to be run over the next three posts on this Blog - which suggests that De Luna died for another man's crime.

(Tribune reporter's Steve Mills and Maurice Possley reported both the Willingham and De Luna stories;)





Not in the name of justice
The criminal justice system is too deeply flawed to entrust with the decision to kill a particular person in order to make a point
By Jack Fuller | a former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune
July 3, 2006;

"Death-penalty opponents advance various arguments for abolition, but the most powerful of them all finds embodiment in the person of Carlos De Luna," the commentary begins;

"Texas executed De Luna in 1989 for the murder of Wanda Lopez in a gas station knife attack," it continues;

"Something went terribly wrong at the execution by lethal injection. De Luna did not slip quickly into unconsciousness as he was supposed to. Instead, he reared up on the gurney against the restraints and seemed to try to say something.

Perhaps it was to cry out in pain as the killing medications began to course into his veins before the anesthetic took hold. The possibility that lethal injection subjects its recipients to excruciating physical agony has become the focus of a great deal of attention lately among death-penalty opponents.

Or worse, De Luna may have been trying to protest his innocence on the very precipice of death. A Tribune investigation has exhumed compelling reasons to think this would have been the truth.

Wrong man executed?

That is the reason we have to stop putting people to death. The criminal justice system is too deeply flawed to entrust with the decision to kill a particular person in order to make a point (for that is what deterrence and retribution come down to).

Odd then that people who believe in the free market because government cannot make the right decision about how to allocate resources don't all rally to the abolitionist cause.

Strange that opponents of socialized medicine can't see that the government they don't trust to save their lives oughtn't be trusted to take De Luna's.

Peculiar that the Republicans who wanted to privatize Social Security to save it from bureaucrats and politicians are eager to let government agents in the form of police, prosecutors, judges and juries decide in the face of profound factual and moral ambiguity that this one should die while that one should live.

It isn't that the people who work in the criminal justice system are bad folks. They are often the very best among us. Police officers willing to put their lives on the line to save ours. Prosecutors who face down some of the scariest individuals on the planet. Judges who do their jobs with almost supernatural self-discipline. Jurors who are called out of peaceful lives and presented with agonizing choices, the memory of which will haunt them forever.

It is simply that they are all human and the power of singling out someone to kill is more than they are built to handle.

Humans have remarkable brains, capable of seeing patterns in the midst of complexity, even chaos. This has served us and our primitive ancestors well. Dithering about whether that long coiled thing obscured by leaves is a snake or a vine is certainly not a good survival strategy.

But this ability to see figures in the clouds can also lead us into error. Eyewitness accounts have proven notoriously imperfect. Circumstantial evidence can weave a noose around a defendant's neck, when the discovery of one more fact would turn it into a halo.

Over the past several years, the Tribune has time and again demonstrated the way in which verdicts have been proven wrong, even when the defendant confesses.

- Forensic experts' theories turn out to be 180 degrees wrong.

- Police identification procedures give cues to uncertain eyewitnesses about who the police believe committed the crime.

- People are sometimes tortured or tricked into telling police they did something that they did not do.

The refinement of DNA testing has given chilling proof that any number of people on Death Row shouldn't have been there.

If figuring out what a defendant did bedevils the criminal justice system, deciding how to assess its moral quality against other similar behavior in order to know whether to exact the ultimate punishment is many times harder.

John Doe is a 20-year-old man with the mind of a 12-year-old. When he kills in an impulsive rage, is he more or less deserving of execution than Rhonda Roe who has a 120 IQ but was beaten and sexually abused by her father from the age of 8 until 15, when she ran away from home and became a prostitute?

We can find ways to discuss such questions meaningfully. The law over the centuries has provided as good a framework for it as we are likely to find. But still the issues are theological in their profound difficulty, especially when the stakes are life or death.

The reason to abolish capital punishment is not that it is immoral for a society to choose death over life. Every time we decide to do a major construction project or launch a space-shuttle program or send in troops (or allow people to drive 70 m.p.h.) we know fairly precisely how many people are likely to die as a result.

Nor is the reason that killing someone inflicts pain. That is almost beside the point, not least because we have the ability to anesthetize effectively if we have the wit to use it.

The real reason is that no government is good enough to entrust with the absolute power that capital punishment entails."