J. KARL MILLER: Opposition to capital punishment is misdirected

Wednesday, February 16, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST

Arguably, organizations opposing the death penalty — Death Penalty Focus, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation — mean well. After all, it is a tragedy each time someone is put to death by our judicial process.

Nevertheless, inasmuch as a majority of Americans — 65 percent, according to ABC News — continues to support the death penalty, which is authorized in 37 states, for cases of capital or aggravated murder, that zeal would appear to be misdirected. The offenses for which death is authorized include murder by one with prior conviction for first-degree murder, killing of a peace officer or officer of the court, and murder while engaged in rape, sodomy, robbery or kidnapping.

Therefore, it should be obvious that capital punishment is reserved for only the most vicious of crimes, and because all states with the exception of Florida require a unanimous jury verdict, the death penalty is neither arbitrarily nor capriciously awarded. In fact, one must conclude that the death penalty is not only an earned but also a richly deserved closure for barbaric behavior and wanton disregard for human life.

Take for example the Feb. 9 execution of Martin Link, convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl kidnapped on her way to a St. Louis school bus. Link, previously convicted of raping a 13-year-old child and, while awaiting trial, accused of raping and beating a 15-year-old, could be the poster boy for continuation of the death penalty.

The shedding of tears over the likes of Link as an abused or neglected child is a sham. Much like the 2007 rape and murder of a 9-year-old Cassville girl by her stepfather or the monster who shot and killed a mother on Mother's Day in Morristown, Tenn., in front of her four children, some crimes are so heinous, so brutally shocking and senseless, that "the basic right to life for all" theme fails the test of morally acceptable conduct.

Contrary to the claims of capital punishment opponents, the death penalty is not a means of exacting revenge, nor does it debase us as a society. Instead, it is a legal, judicial means of judging responsibility and an appropriate punishment for particularly atrocious or hideous crimes.

For example, how can one justify leniency for someone who abuses and murders a child? Not only is that youngster deprived of the carefree experience of childhood, but also the family is forever denied the joy of guiding the child through to maturity and the hope of grandchildren. There can be no more horrific experience than that of a parent burying a child.

Death penalty adversaries tend to cite sanctity of life, its failure to deter commission of capital crimes and the risk of executing the innocent as primary reasons for opposition. The callous antipathy shown the victim's life by the killer renders it difficult for even the most compassionate among us to summon the slightest degree of sympathy or regret at his or her execution.

As to the absence of the death penalty's deterrence factor in preventing murder, that is not entirely correct — of the 3,000-plus inmates on death row in 2005, 8.4 percent had previous homicide convictions. Nonetheless, viewing capital punishment's existence as a homicide deterrent is not highly relevant as each capital crime must be decided on the evidence.

Finally, the time from sentence to execution, measured in weeks at the nation's founding, has increased to well over 10 years, with many instances exceeding 20 years. The Supreme Court's suspension of the death penalty from 1972 until 1976 resulted in mandated reforms, such as lengthier appeals, automatic sentence reviews and changes in law and technology, making it highly unlikely that the innocent will be put to death.

Accordingly, though the judicial process is not infallible, the checks and balances provided by the executive and legislative branches, the appellate courts and the press work together to insure against miscarriage of justice. The system could be improved with a faster-track appellate process for those whose guilt is unquestioned, but there is scant hope for that.

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

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Brian Wallstin February 16, 2011 | 10:14 a.m.

This wouldn't be the first time Col. Miller misrepresented a news article in order to support a weak argument.

Here's what that ABC story actually said: "A new poll finds 65 percent of Americans support capital punishment when no alternative is offered. But given life without parole as an option, people divide — 46 percent for executions, 43 percent for life in prison."

Opposition to the death penalty isn't about the "shedding of tears over the likes of [Martin] Link." Increasingly, it's about the well-documented fallibility and outright abuse of the criminal justice system in capital cases.

According to the Innocence Project, at least 17 people "have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States after serving time on death row. They were convicted in 11 states and served a combined 209 years in prison – including 187 years on death row – for crimes they didn’t commit."

Who knows how many innocent death-row inmates weren't so fortunate.

Occasionally it would be nice, Colonel,if you stepped outside your comfort zone and truly grappled with a complex issue, instead of relying on tired dogma.

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller February 17, 2011 | 8:18 a.m.

Mr Walstin. I did not select the ABC News poll as my source for the 65 death penalty statistic--apparently that was done by the Missourian's editorial staff to provide a link for the record. Instead, I "stepped out of my comfort zone" and located a number polls in which those approving the death penalty ranged from 65 to 69 percent. Additionally, the 17 "proved innocent and exonerated" and others like them were covered in my last two paragraphs if you bothered to read that far.

As to the "who knows how many innocent death row inmates weren't so fortunate?" Inasmuch as there appear to be no records of that venue, perhaps that is a complex issue with which you might grapple?

(Report Comment)
Brian Wallstin February 17, 2011 | 9:30 a.m.

Col. Miller,

If you read the polls you claim to have consulted, you might have noticed that support for the death penalty has actually been in decline. In 2009, a Gallup Poll did, indeed, estimate that 65 percent of Americans support the death penalty — while noting that it's "significantly lower than the 80 percent support recorded in 1994 and near the lowest support of 64 percent in the past 25 years."

As for how many innocent people have been executed — I agree it's impossible to know with absolute certainty. But your assertion that it's "highly unlikely that the innocent will be put to death" is wishful thinking that puts you in the minority. The same Gallup poll cited above found that 59 percent of Americans believe that an innocent person has been executed in the last five years.

I wonder why:

In any event, the fact that a majority of people support a policy is hardly the best justification for continuing said policy. But I'll bet it makes those who support the death penalty knowing that innocent people have been executed feel better.

(Report Comment)
Jim Clayton February 17, 2011 | 10:36 a.m.

The death penalty issue has always been a controversial issue. Even though innocent people have been executed for crimes they did not commit it should still be a deterrant and would be if shrewd lawyers didn't get their criminal clients life paroles. That's another reason our prisons are so overcrowded. Today "life in prison" doesn't necessarily mean for the rest of your life. It is usually for fifteen years and with good behaviour they are out sooner which is why you hear judges handing down sentences with three and four and more life terms to a killer.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote February 17, 2011 | 11:53 a.m.

I fail to see how one could support such a draconian punishment in light of the fact that the race of the perpetrator as well as the race of the victim plays such a prominent role in its application. This holds true for both state and federal capitol punishment cases.
Data demonstrating racial bias can be found here:

Here is a table from the ACLU report (data from 2003):
The jurisdictions with the highest percentages of minorities on its death row:

U.S. Military (86%)
Colorado (80%)
U.S. Government (77%)
Louisiana (72%)
Pennsylvania (70%)

Perhaps Mr. Miller could comment on the egregious fact that currently 71% of those on death row in the US military are minorities (minorities comprise approximately 25% of the armed forces). Maybe Mr. Miller is operating on an alternative set of facts that justifies his support for capital punishment?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 17, 2011 | 1:19 p.m.

BrianW: "In any event, the fact that a majority of people support a policy is hardly the best justification for continuing said policy."

Intriguing statement that needs further explanation.

If the "people" are not the final arbiter...then who exactly is the referee?

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller February 17, 2011 | 1:34 p.m.

Mr Foote--Your statistic gleaned from ACLU accounting, to wit: "People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 % of total executions since 1976 and 55 % of those currently awaiting execution" conveniently fails to disclose the percentage of people of color convicted of capital crimes. Are you attempting to make the case that those individuals were convicted because of their color rather than because they were guilty?

(Report Comment)
Brian Wallstin February 17, 2011 | 1:56 p.m.

Read the link Mr. Foote provided, Colonel. It explains the problem pretty well.

(Report Comment)
Brian Wallstin February 17, 2011 | 2:01 p.m.

Michael W: What I should have said is basing a policy on poll results isn't the best justification for a policy.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 17, 2011 | 2:13 p.m.

BrianW: True, I don't like basing public policy on "polls" either. Oh, don't get me wrong...I trust polls IF they are done properly and with true random selection AND a large enuf sample is taken to reduce the confidence interval. Problem is, how often are THOSE criteria met?

Not as often as I would like.

Perhaps we should vote on the death penalty.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop February 17, 2011 | 3:19 p.m.

I am in favor or capital punishment, and for more than just murder. Forcible rape of a child under 13, DUI homicide, sale of narcotics, assault which is so grievous that the person would have died had they not received medical care.

All that being said, I am very much in favor of the long appeals process. First, it keeps us from becoming the very animals we seek to remove from our society. Second, for the innocent man, it is sometimes the only thing they have going for them until they can find a way to prove their innocense. Third, for the rightfully convicted thug, I kind of like the idea of them getting close to their execution date and then being yanked back only to have to face the process all over again. Call me a romantic if you will.

As far as the system goes, I can't speak for the rest of the nation, but in Houston, predominantly black juries handed down more death sentences than predominantly white juries. This could be that Americans who happen to have more pigment than I are sick and tired of being the majority of the victims of these thugs.

Let's look at liberal Vermont. Can you think of a state more liberal? Home of Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders! Liberal Vermont is 94.9% caucasian. It is one percent black, and 1.5% Hispanic. Caucasians and Hispanics have incarceraton rates nearly identical. Yet black incarceration rates are over 8 times higher than whites. Vermont has virtually zero gun regulation, and only one state, Maine, has a lower violent crime rate.

If you are going to give a convicted felon life without parole, what is to stop them from killing other inmates? What have they to fear? The inmate they murder could be an innocent person too. There are no easy answers. But removing capital punishment will not lower crime on the outside, only increase violence on the inside. Just ask any prison guards about the conduct of people serving life without parole. Nobody said our court system was perfect. Nor are our juries perfect. But it's what we have. The only thing I might add is harsher penalties for prosecutors and police officers that fail to bring forth exculpatory evidence. And in the case of some repeat dirtbags, I could see why they wouldn't.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop February 17, 2011 | 3:45 p.m.

Perhaps if we had more racial equality amongst people committing violent crime, you might see the percentage of minorities reduced. That's it, increase the rate of whites committing violent crime, and then you will see the rates for non white violent crime reduced. I'm sure that will make us all feel better. Of course, we could just reduce the percentage of non whites committing violent crime, but that would make too much sense.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire February 17, 2011 | 7:36 p.m.

But I thought the death penalty deterred violent crime.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop February 18, 2011 | 6:13 a.m.

Paul, the death penalty is a definite deterrant to violent crime. Many studies show that every person convicted and executed has not committed another crime. 100% success rate at permanent rehabilitation. You just can't beat those results. And how many countless murders, brutal assaults, rapes and robberies has it prevented? You can bet the total far exceeds those who have been executed, even those who were innocent.

(Report Comment)
Brian Wallstin February 18, 2011 | 9:32 a.m.

DonM said, "And how many countless murders, brutal assaults, rapes and robberies has it prevented? You can bet the total far exceeds those who have been executed, even those who were innocent."

Got anything to back that up?

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop February 18, 2011 | 12:19 p.m.

Brian, yes I do. It's called common sense. Unfortunately, liberals seem to have a severe deficiency of that gene.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire February 18, 2011 | 12:50 p.m.

So you're saying that if we add the innocent people who were executed in with the criminals that were, the crimes prevented would be more than the number of people we killed? Is that your assertion?

(Report Comment)
Brian Wallstin February 18, 2011 | 1:58 p.m.

DonM: Your common sense fails you in this case. The murder rate in non-death penalty states are lower than the murder rate in states with the death penalty.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop February 19, 2011 | 5:20 a.m.

Brian, I choose to take my statistic from the census bureau and the DOJ. Now this into is ONLY through 2008. And I just sent this spreadsheet to Colonel Miller about 24 hours ago. Out of the ten states with the lowest murder rates, 5 of them have the death penalty, including #'s 2, 3, 4, 7 & 8.

The one thing I did discover was thatt on a statewide basis, but murder rate had nothing to do with racial populations.

Colonel, feel free to send that file to anyone who requests it.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 19, 2011 | 7:01 a.m.

Mr Miller,

If you could just show me a way of bringing a person back to life after they are wrongly convicted and put to death, I'd support the Death Penalty. Heck, I'd even campaign for it.

And Brian W. is RIGHT! 10 Million people CAN be wrong......

And Mike; here is a question to your question: "If the "people" are not the final arbiter...then who exactly is the referee?"

Well, I don't know; who is the "referee" in this Proposition B issue where the people voted one way and the Legislators want to repeal that vote by the people? Riddle me that, Batman?

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop February 19, 2011 | 5:09 p.m.

Here you go folks. Take your pick of stories of murderers released to murder again, OR, murder other prisoners or guards while in prison.;_ylt=AmAV...

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop February 19, 2011 | 5:12 p.m.

Oh, England doesn't have capital punishment. Here's the results:

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire February 19, 2011 | 7:48 p.m.

Yah right. You might contrast England's crime rate with ours.
However, that would hurt your argument.

(Report Comment)
frank christian February 19, 2011 | 9:25 p.m.

Don M - Remember Chas Manson? Instigated the murder of 8 by his cult. The death sentence of all convicted was overturned in 70's, giving Diane Sawyer the opportunity to interview him annually for several years. Never looked as tho he was suffering worse than death to me. I think two of his girls were paroled and one immediately tried to shoot Gerald Ford. I used to read that Manson had a cult following him in prison, none of them would ever harm anyone, I'm sure. Just recently reported that he has been caught with his second illicit, smuggled, cell phone. And we should be paying to keep this maniac alive?

Another short one from NRA. Widowed old man in England kept his shot gun, secretly, rather than turn it in after the fools outlawed firearms owned by citizens. Two thieves tried to rob and kill him, instead he shot and killed them both. NRA said he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life. NRA said he was almost killed, and must be kept in solitary to prevent the real killers from attacking him.

In my opinion,it's hard to believe that we are only people that believe in self preservation this much, but the death penalty is a must. btw believe it can be easily proven that home invasions have sky rocketed in UK since their law guarantees that no one will have firearms at home.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote February 19, 2011 | 10:08 p.m.


United Kingdom (England and Wales) murder rate per capita = 1.35 per 100,000 people; 2006-2008 average.
US murder rate per capita = 5.63 per 100,000 people; 2006-2008 average.

5.63/1.35 = 4.17
Our per capita murder rate is over 400% greater than the United Kingdoms'. It would be quite a stretch to suggest the data supports the assertion that the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime. Perhaps if the data were reversed you'd have something to hang your hat on.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop February 20, 2011 | 6:07 a.m.

My point is that the death penalty keeps violent criminals from committing more crimes. Whether or not a state does or does not have the death penalty has no bearing on crime rates at all. Any argument to the contrary is specious. The societal factor affecting crime of all sorts can be argued ad naseum. Again, race and the death penalty seem not to be a factor on which states have the most and least crime in any particular category. The death penalty does not alter crime statistics. Life sentences do not prevent crime inside our outside of prison. The Mexican gangs are ample proof of that. But death penalty is the only 100% sure fire way in prevention of recidivism. Without it, people are at risk either in or out of prison.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop February 20, 2011 | 7:07 a.m.

Since 1990 Canada has higher rates than the US for breaking and entering, motor vehicle theft and arson. Canadian cities had lower rates of homicides, aggravated assaults and robberies. In 2000, Canada had a nationwide rate of 954 break-ins for every 100,000 population, compared with the American rate of 728.
In 2000, Canadian police reported 521 motor vehicle thefts for every 100,000 population, 26% higher than the rate of 414 in the United States.
In 1980 and 1990, U.S. rape rates were higher than those of any Western nation, but by 2000, Canada took the lead. Robbery has been on a steady decline in the United States over the past two decades. As of 2000, countries with more reported robberies than the United States included England and Wales, Portugal, and Spain. As of 2000, the United States had lower burglary rates than Australia, Denmark, Finland, England and Wales, and Canada.

Violent crimes have declined 57 percent from 1993 to 2004 in the USA . Violent crime now occurs in the United States with about the same frequency as in England and Wales, according to a cross-national study released by BJS in 2004.

According to the 1997 Survey of State Prison Inmates, among those possessing a gun, the source of the gun was from -

a flea market or gun show for fewer than 2%
a retail store or pawnshop for about 12%
family, friends, a street buy, or an illegal source for 80%

By 1993, nearly all gang-related homicides involved guns (97 percent), whereas the percentage of gun homicides related to arguments remained relatively constant. The percentage of gang-related homicides caused by guns fell slightly to 94 percent in 2004, but the percentage of homicides caused by firearms during the commission of a felony rose from about 60 percent to 77 percent from 1976 to 2005.

Trying to compare national crime rates and causal factors invites adjusting statistics to prove whatever case you wish. Vermont has no death penalty, virtually no gun control, a white population of 94%, and 1% black. But blacks are incarcerated at a rate 8 times higher than whites. But their murder rate is in the lower third range, and their violent crime is in the lowest 5% range. What Vermont seems to have learned is criminal control works better than gun control.

(Report Comment)
david smith February 20, 2011 | 9:53 a.m.

Just because a guy chops a family up with an ax doesn't mean he should be put to death. It is so barbaric how Missouri puts these poor criminals to death, they poke them with a needle and the criminal goes to sleep. This is just as barbaric as chopping a family up with an ax. These criminals can be rehabbed and released back to society, they may kill a couple more times, but eventually they will stop. Get rid of the death penalty, I love being a liberal.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith February 20, 2011 | 10:49 a.m.

@david smith:

Nice bit of sarcasm. Let's invite all the axe murderers over for tea, and we can join them in singing a couple of choruses of "Kumbyah." Or we could always take a convicted murderer to lunch (at an appropriately expensive restaurant).

(Report Comment)

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