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To Protect the Innocent


Roger Coleman, who was executed in Virginia last week, was innocent of the murder for which he was convicted, his lawyer and others connected with the case claim. It is grisly to say so, but if he was, that will be the best thing that has happened to the anti-death-penalty crowd since the Supreme Court re-instituted capital punishment in 1976.

We are members of that crowd. The Sun has consistently opposed capital punishment on a variety of grounds. We believe it is uncivilized for the state to take a life. We believe it is a waste of resources to spend the extra tens of thousands of dollars it costs a state to go for the death penalty rather than life imprisonment. We believe the death penalty is so unevenly sought by prosecutors as to be random in its application, which is an affront to the Eighth Amendment, which bans "cruel and unusual" punishment. We believe it is applied more often against blacks than whites even in similar cases.

But we do not believe the death penalty has resulted in the death of an innocent man in modern times. There have been several studies that demonstrate this. (For example, "To Protect the Innocent," by Stephen J. Markman and Paul G. Cassell, Stanford Law Review, November 1988.)

In Mr. Coleman's case, the focus of the outrage and sadness on the part of critics of the execution was on the fact that the federal judiciary refused on procedural grounds to consider new evidence. That disturbs us as well. But we note that Gov. Douglas Wilder, a critic of the death penalty when he was a state legislator, did consider all the new evidence in a clemency hearing and concluded the sentence was not unjust.

That the federal courts, with life-tenured judges, have shifted increasing authority in emotion-packed capital sentence cases to elected governors and elected state court judges is not a good thing in our view. The administration of justice is supposed to be shielded from inflamed public opinion. This shift has been a recent development. In fact, the studies that show only the guilty have been executed are based on cases during the period of time in which the federal judiciary right up to the Supreme Court reviewed and re-reviewed and re-re-reviewed such sentences. Now that the federal courts are less protective of the rights of those sentenced, it is perhaps more likely that an innocent person will one day be executed.

If and when that happens, and it is proven, we feel sure American public opinion, which now strongly supports capital punishment, will turn in revulsion against the death penalty. Until it happens, opponents of this ultimate sentence must direct their energy toward assuring that all accused persons get absolutely fair treatment in the courtrooms open to them.

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