A national movement to abolish capital punishment is growing, state by state. Maryland is expected soon to become the 18th state to repeal death-penalty laws. Nevertheless, taking a life for taking a life still seems like a good idea for millions of Americans.
But capital punishment is not what it used to be, when the gallows was a scene of commerce and merriment. Seventeenth-century England, whence comes so much of our law and culture, hanged evildoers with the enthusiasm of modern Texas. There’s the story of the shipwrecked sailor of the time who was washed up on a distant shore after a storm at sea. He opened his eyes the next morning, and the first thing he saw, on a hill far away, was a gallows.
“Thank God!” he cried. “I’m in a Christian country.”
Executions in civilized places are no longer public spectacles. Old Sparky, as death-row inmates once called the electric chair, has been put in the closet. “Riding the needle,” as death-row inmates grimly call the lethal injection that replaced the rope and the electric chair, isn’t thought to be as painless and humane as we were once so confidently told it was.
The leader of the modern movement to abolish death row is a man who spent nearly a decade waiting for execution for a crime he did not commit. Kirk Noble Bloodworth — his very name is something that Charles Dickens might have bestowed on one of his characters — was convicted on flimsy evidence of raping and killing a 9-year-old girl. He was eventually cleared by DNA evidence, but not before the state fiercely resisted him at every step of the way. Since he walked free, he has campaigned to abolish the death penalty in every state where it is still prescribed.
Mr. Bloodworth, once a Marine, was arrested when a neighbor saw a police sketch of the man suspected of the crime and thought it looked like him. She called the cops, who were under great public pressure to find a killer, and they arrested Mr. Bloodworth. A quick trial followed, and he was soon on death row.
Mr. Bloodworth does not appear to be bitter over his ordeal. “Nobody knew what DNA was,” he told The New York Times the other day, as he campaigned in support of Maryland abolition, “it was sort of shaman science, a ‘get out of jail free’ card.” But challenging judicial bungling is no board game; the courts have no monopoly on justice.
Eventually, under pressure from the efforts of Mr. Bloodworth and his friends, the authorities put the DNA collected at the crime scene through a database of suspects and found the man who had in fact raped and the killed the little girl. He is serving a life sentence.
DNA, no longer regarded as “shaman science,” has changed the debate over capital punishment. The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington counts 18 death-row prisoners freed by newly discovered DNA evidence. Many in the movement to abolish the death penalty are still driven by moral concerns, the belief that the state infringes God’s prerogatives when it takes a life. But now, the abolitionists mostly argue that the death penalty is wrong because it risks killing the innocent.
Enthusiasm for the death penalty is clearly declining because so many people, including the politicians who prize “leading from behind,” now acknowledge doubts about the courts always getting it right. Five states have abolished the death penalty since 2007; 43 prisoners were executed last year, down from 98 in 1999. DNA is widely thought to the single most compelling factor.
The emotional arguments over the death penalty have subsided, but haven’t gone away. Sometimes the crime, particularly against a child, are so heinous that mere accusation is enough to be mistaken for evidence. There’s scant evidence that the death penalty deters murder, and considerable evidence that it doesn’t.
Several years ago, a governor of Illinois commuted the death sentences of every prisoner on death row when he discovered, through DNA analysis, innocent men awaiting execution. When I wrote in praise of the governor’s courage, I was inundated with angry letters. One man wrote that he agreed that an innocent man might rarely be executed, but he thought it “an acceptable price to pay.” I offered to forward his letter to the governor, as a volunteer to pay the acceptable price if the governor ever needed one. He was not amused.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.