I hate the death penalty for many reasons that I won’t bother to go into here. But the recent results of an investigation about how over many decades the FBI faked forensic evidence to aid the prosecution in criminal cases should settle the case against it once and for all since it throws serious doubt on our ability to reach the level of certainty about guilt that a death penalty requires. (Thanks to Marcus Ranum for the link.)
Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.
The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions. [My emphasis-MS]
As Dahlia Lithwik says:
The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, put it, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”
This study was launched after the Post reported that flawed forensic hair matches might have led to possibly hundreds of wrongful convictions for rape, murder, and other violent crimes, dating back at least to the 1970s. In 90 percent of the cases reviewed so far, forensic examiners evidently made statements beyond the bounds of proper science. There were no scientifically accepted standards for forensic testing, yet FBI experts routinely and almost unvaryingly testified, according to the Post, “to the near-certainty of ‘matches’ of crime-scene hairs to defendants, backing their claims by citing incomplete or misleading statistics drawn from their case work.”
Even if we had absolute certainty of guilt for the most heinous of crimes, I would still oppose the death penalty, but as a mean of trying to get it abolished and mollify those who claim that one should not let certain criminals out into the streets again, I have in the past supported the option of sentencing such people to life without parole.
But this article in The Intercept by James Ridgeway suggests that I should be a little more circumspect about advocating this too and that such an unequivocal sentence is wrong. He says that this practice is really a replacement of the older punishment of banishment that removed a person from a society but which has become impractical in a world of easy travel.
As usual, the US seems to be the leader in this type of punishment, with the burden falling disproportionately on black people.
The United States holds more than 2.2 million people in prison and jail, grossly outpacing the rest of the globe in terms of both sheer numbers and incarceration rate. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. Compared with Western Europe, we incarcerate five to ten times as high a percentage of our citizens.
But those overall numbers are just part of what sets us off from other industrialized nations. In Europe, the nature of sentencing is such that virtually every person who is sent to prison will one day return to society. Even those who receive “life” sentences are eventually eligible for parole. The International Criminal Court stipulates that those convicted of the very gravest crimes should serve 25 years before having their status reviewed. That is one key reason why rehabilitation, and not purely punishment and incapacitation, is the primary aim of the prison system.
In the United States, people sentenced to death number slightly over 3,000. With the number of legal and de facto state moratoria increasing, more of them are likely to die in prison of suicide or natural causes than by an executioner’s hand. They join tens of thousands of others in suffering permanent banishment to the carceral state.
According to the Sentencing Project, nearly 50,000 Americans are currently serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), a punishment that has been called “the other death sentence,” and which, like capital punishment, is unknown in Europe. In excess of 100,000 more are serving life sentences — many, like Patty Prewitt, with minimums so long that they will die before their potential parole date arrives.
About 10,000 of these lifers were sentenced before they reached the age of 18. Nearly half are African American — a number even more disproportionate than the total number of African Americans in prison. Thousands of them have been further buried in the tomb of prolonged solitary confinement, removed even from the meager community that the prison might offer– another practice virtually unique to the United States.
Everyone should have the option of parole because a lifetime spent in prison may be too much even for a crime such as murder. If a person has shown remorse after confessing guilt or have good behavior over a long time while protesting innocence, they should be considered for release. Surely everyone should have the chance of living free again, even if it is just to spend their last years with their families? The case of Patty Prewitt is a good example.
In 1986, Patty Prewitt was sent to prison for the murder of her husband. In addition to maintaining her innocence, she, like many others her age, has also been a model prisoner for nearly 30 years.
Patty Prewitt is one of the tens of thousands of Americans who will never again experience life outside of prison. While inside, Prewitt, a grandmother of 10, runs education and parenting programs, produces award-winning writings, and crochets teddy bears for charity. Yet for a crime committed three decades ago (and currently being reviewed by the Midwest Innocence Project), she will forever be barred from society, never again to live among free people.
Of course, there is always the possibility that a dangerous person dupes the system and is released and commits another crime.. The alternative of imprisoning for life many people who might be innocent or have truly changed their lives seems too high a price to pay for that possibility. After all, we live with similar risks all the time, with undetected murderers and serial killers and dangerously psychotic people roaming the streets.