Sunday, June 18, 2000

Death penalty

Still guilty

        Pretend the death penalty is a toaster that is tested for 10 years, in 24 inspections by an army of toaster testers — to make sure nobody gets electrocuted by mistake.

        Sound safe enough?

        Not to opponents of capital punishment. Their new argument is that we should unplug every toaster because some did not pass inspection.

        I'm no death-penalty fanatic. I've seen good arguments in favor, and the shattered victims they left behind. The best case against it is moral, but the worst opponents are not ethical.

        They ignore victims and make martyrs of murderers. They sabotage the system at taxpayer expense, then say executions are too costly. Defense lawyers salt the record with deliberate mistakes, then say the killer had a lousy defense.

        The latest twist looks like more of the same. “Investigative reporters spring condemned prisoners,” a headline boasts in Editor & Publisher. The story asks, “Are newspapers writing the death penalty's obit?”

        Many are trying, by creating the impression that innocent men are getting toasted.

        “Death sentences overturned in two of three appeals,” the headlines said last week. But some stories did not say the study was done by a death-penalty defense lawyer. Also unmentioned or buried was that 93 percent of the “reversals” were still found guilty. The rest were not “innocent,” but escaped execution because of procedural errors by judges, prosecutors, police — and most often, their own lawyers.

        When the Chicago Tribune reported 127 reversals among 285 cases, Illinois Gov. George Ryan halted executions. But the Tribune was wrong by 40 percent, according to a review by the National District Attorneys Association. And those who say Illinois is exhibit A for a national moratorium are dead wrong.

        “Illinois' "actual innocence' cases appear to involve an unprecedented degree of police, prosecutorial and judicial corruption,” Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery said. “It is reasonable to assume that the problem is related to the absence of professional standards and the limited availability of defense resources in capital cases.”

        “By contrast, in Ohio, capital trial attorneys are certified by court rule and have the benefit of services and assistance from the State Public Defender's Office.”

        She says more reversals in Ohio mean less risk of executing innocents: “In sum, all kinds of incidents seen in Illinois would seem improbable in Ohio.”

        Ohio Treasurer Joe Deters filled 22 bunks on death row as Hamilton County prosecutor. “I'm very confident they are guilty,” he said.

        Nationally, a handful of death-row inmates have been found innocent by DNA testing. But Mr. Deters says most are more like William Zuern, who stabbed a guard in the heart in the Cincinnati Workhouse in 1984. Witnesses had no doubt who killed Deputy Phillip Pence.

        Yet, “For seven years, Judge Rice sat on it in Dayton, and now he says Zuern needs a new trial,” Mr. Deters said.

        U.S. District Judge Walter Rice's opposition to the death penalty is not unusual. “Unfortunately, we still see widespread delays that are unexplainable and often inexcusable,” Mrs. Montgomery said.

        Her report marks time on death row: Michael Webb, murdered his wife and four children in Clermont County in 1990, 3,090 days; David Steffen, raped and murdered a Cincinnati girl in 1982, 6,064 days; Darryl Gumm, raped and beat to death a 10-year-old boy in 1992, 2,592 days.

        There are 203 strong arguments for capital punishment sitting on death row in Ohio. Bring on the DNA tests. They will prove that an innocent person is less likely to get killed by the death penalty than by opponents who “spring condemned killers” to block executions.

Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.