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Civilized debate over merits of death penalty worth the conversation

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

It is tragic indeed each time a human being is put to death by our judicial process, as human life is considered sacred by a civilized people. But the real tragedy is that in a supposedly civilized society, there are those who commit crimes so heinous, so depraved in nature, that a jury of their peers deems — by unanimous vote — that this is the only punishment appropriate to the act.

As is the law in the other 34 states authorizing the death penalty, capital murder is the sole crime for which capital punishment can be ordered by law in Missouri. Murder by one with prior convictions for first-degree murder; killing of a peace officer or officer of the court; murder while engaging in rape, sodomy, robbery or kidnapping; killing a witness to prevent prosecution of a felony or killing while escaping lawful custody are some of the offenses for which capital punishment is authorized.

The May 20 execution of Dennis Skillicorn attracted, once again, the anti-death penalty crowd with its editorials, protests and midnight vigils in a highly vocal but lawful and peaceful execution of its First Amendment rights of assembly and free speech. While I do not agree with their position, I endorse the right to dissent and applaud their peaceful conduct.

As previously stated, capital punishment is authorized in 34 of the 50 states and, as recently as 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state of Kentucky’s death by lethal injection as a legitimate means of execution by a 7-2 majority (Baze v. Rees). Moreover, while there has been a lessening of support since the middle 1990s, more than 60 percent of Americans believe the death penalty the appropriate penalty for shockingly brutal or cruel capital crimes.

For example, it is somewhat difficult to summon any degree of sympathy or compassion for, say, the man who shot and killed the mother of four on Mother’s Day in Morristown, Tenn., with the children looking on. Or for the slayer of a mother and her children, ages 8 and 3, in Clarksville, Tenn., in February. For sheer depravity, though, one needs only to look to the 2007 Cassville rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl by her stepfather and another man.

There are countless similar atrocities recorded all over the nation as well as the world itself, crimes of which we are all aware and naturally shocked by their sheer brutality and senselessness. It is for this reason that I and a sizable majority believe that not only is capital punishment the only punishment suitable for these crimes — that it not be termed “revenge killing,” as some would have us believe — but a just penalty earned by action(s) so monstrously evil that a judge and jury concur in the evidence and the sentence.

Although the late Mr. Skillicorn’s unlawful behavior did not approach the depravity of that described previously, the crime for which he was sentenced, a murder involving kidnapping and robbery as an aggravating circumstance, it is well within the parameters required for a “capital homicide.” And, when one considers that during the commission of this crime, Skillicorn was on parole for yet another Missouri murder along with admitted guilt for slaying an Arizona couple a few days after the crime for which he was sentenced, the “he and everyone has a basic right to life” argument fails the test of acceptable moral conduct.

Opponents of capital punishment cite the number of times new evidence unearthed during the appellate process proves that capital punishment is deeply flawed through capricious enforcement of law enforcement errors. These findings include new or changed witness testimony, the use of DNA and errors by defense and prosecution alike, resulting in the overturning of three death sentence convictions since 1976, three sentenced to life imprisonment without parole and two more awaiting resentencing.

Inasmuch as there is no evidence of anyone executed unlawfully, would it not be more prudent to conclude that this attests to the quality and veracity of the appellate system in place? That, while the judicial process is not one of zero defects, the requisite checks and balances exist in the presence the legislative and executive branches and the Fourth Estate along with the appellate courts to ensure justice is done?

Mr. Jeff Stack, coordinator of the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation, has painted a positive picture of Skillicorn’s apparent life turnaround and his attempts to redeem himself by giving back to society some of that which he has taken. These efforts include originating the prison hospice program, co-founding the 4-H Life program for families needing help in coping with incarceration of a family member and raising money for scholarships for families of murdered loved ones.

Mr. Stack is to be respected for the courage of his convictions and Skillicorn also for his humanitarian efforts. Nevertheless, it must be understood that 15 years on death row provides a powerful incentive to show one’s best side in behavior and remorse — survival is man’s basic instinct. The fault lies not in the death penalty but rather is inherent in the much-too-lengthy appellate process.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.

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Comments

Christopher Foote May 28, 2009 | 11:43 a.m.

Mr. Miller,

The fallibility of our criminal justice system is one reason to reject the death penalty as a suitable punishment for heinous crimes. The Innocence Project (http://www.innocenceproject.org) has documented every case in which irrefutable DNA evidence has led to an overturned conviction. Since the first exoneration in 1989, there have been a total of 238 post conviction exonerations. 17 of these 238 were death row cases. Thus in the absence of DNA evidence 17 people would have been wrongly put to death. If we assume that since 1989 there have been/are 5000 people on death row nation-wide, this translates into an error rate of .34%. Also note that these exonerations occur only when the evidence is irrefutable. There are many cases that lack such evidence, thus the true error rate for a false conviction is certainly greater. With respect to the death penalty, I believe that an error rate greater than 0 is unacceptable and for this reason the state should not execute people.

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