First things first: If Willingham really did kill his three daughters, he deserved his 2004 date with death at Huntsville. Anyone who takes the life of another in cold blood should pay for it with his own. But being found guilty by a jury is not the same as actually being guilty of the crime – which is why I reluctantly oppose the death penalty. This is no longer the Wild West. If we are going to send a man to his death, an irrevocable punishment, the margin of error must be vanishingly small.
It’s unlikely we will ever devise a capital punishment system guaranteed to smite only the truly guilty. DNA evidence greatly enhances the possibility of accuracy, but those results are only as reliable as crime lab technicians. Remember Joyce Gilchrist, the incompetent Oklahoma City forensic scientist whose work helped send 11 convicts to their deaths – and who has seen numerous inmates, some on death row, exonerated since authorities learned what a disaster she was?
Granted, Gilchrist’s expert testimony concerned less sophisticated kinds of lab analysis, which was refuted later by DNA testing. The point is that perfection is an impossible standard for anything involving human beings. We can live with something less than perfection when it doesn’t involve ending someone’s life. But how can the state’s executing a thousand killers compensate for the moral horror of putting to death a single innocent person?
Hear, hear. Read the whole thing.