Death penalty dilemma: Executing the innocent?
By Charles Bierbauer
CNN Senior Washington Correspondent
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
Florida death row inmate Terry Melvin Sims chose death by lethal injection
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Terry Melvin Sims claimed until his own death Wednesday that he was not guilty of murder. Sims, convicted in a 1977 shooting death, was executed in Florida by lethal injection.
The state of Florida had no doubt Sims was guilty. But wrongful execution is an irreparable mistake. For Illinois Gov. George Ryan, the numbers were an omen such a mistake could happen.
"We have now freed more people  than we have put to death  under our system," Ryan said of Illinois. Though he supports the death penalty, Ryan last month declared the nation's first state moratorium on executions until steps can be taken to restore confidence in the equity of a system that has admittedly put some innocents on death row.
A question of fairness
President Clinton urged other governors to "look very closely" at the idea of a moratorium, following Ryan's move. But Clinton declined to impose one on federal death penalty cases, which are relatively few in number. Clinton supported the death penalty when he was governor of Arkansas.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also a proponent of the death penalty, signed legislation last month allowing an inmate to choose execution by lethal injection -- Sims was the first to do so -- rather than by electric chair.
Florida's electric chair
That move headed off a U.S. Supreme Court review of whether the chair -- gruesomely known as "Old Sparky" -- violated the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."
But the Supreme Court this week turned down a similar appeal by a death row inmate in Alabama that had charged the state's electric chair has caused "excessive burning, trauma and pain."
There is no clear pattern, but there is a renewed debate about the fairness of the death penalty, and its place in a civilized society.
Most Americans favor the death penalty -- 71 percent in a Gallup Poll last year. Thirty-eight states have a death penalty. Last year 98 death row inmates were executed, a record since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling restored capital punishment.
The number of executions is up in part because longtime inmates are exhausting their appeals. Inmates' spending 10 to 15 years on death row is not unusual, though the Supreme Court recently turned down an appeal that argued spending that much time awaiting execution is itself a cruel and unusual punishment.
DNA or die?
After 14 years on Texas' death row, Betty Lou Beets was executed Thursday. The 62-year-old great-grandmother, referred to by some as "the black widow," was convicted of murdering her fifth husband. Beets said she was abused.
Texas inmate Betty Lou Beets
A reprieve by Texas Gov. George W. Bush or a federal court had been Beets' last hope, but technology has been springing other inmates from the death sentence.
DNA evidence, not available when many of the nation's death row inmates were sentenced, is now being used to establish the innocence of some inmates.
"I was in prison for a total of eight years, 11 months and 19 days for a crime I didn't commit," Kirk Bloodsworth told a Capitol Hill news conference this month. Bloodsworth was convicted for the 1984 rape and murder of a 9-year-old Maryland girl. Originally sentenced to death, he was serving a life sentence but was freed in 1993 after a laboratory tested a tiny spot of semen and found it was not his.
"In 1984, they had no DNA that could measure that type of thing," Bloodsworth recounted. "I simply had to wait till technology caught up with my case."
Bloodsworth's story was Exhibit A this month as Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, proposed legislation -- the Innocence Protection Act -- to ensure that any prisoner on death row and other inmates would have access to DNA testing if relevant to the case.
The U.S. Justice Department reported last year that 60 convictions in death penalty and other cases had been overturned on the basis of DNA testing.
"One vindication for every seven executions is not a criminal justice system that is working right," Leahy said. "It is a case of Russian roulette."
U.S. death row inmates appear in new Benetton ads for the clothing conscious with a social conscience. Benetton is an Italian company, and Italy long since banned the death penalty.
"Sometimes I wonder if it's going to hurt," Bobby Lee Harris says in one of the unorthodox ads for the trendy clothing manufacturer.
The U.S. death penalty has become an international cause. Pope John Paul II has raised his voice against it. So has the U.N. agency on human rights.
The one U.S. institution that could stop the death penalty cold -- the Supreme Court -- shows no inclination to do so as a group. A minority on the bench makes occasional opposition; Justice John Paul Stevens is the one justice who consistently opposes the death penalty.
"This is a life-and-death situation, but they take few cases because, I think, they want these issues to be decided on a lower level," says Richard Deiter of the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group in Washington opposed to capital punishment.
The death penalty cases that have come before the justices tend to address procedures, the length of appeals and the effectiveness of counsel.
"They want to streamline the process," explains Bob Pambianco of the Washington Legal Foundation, a pro-death penalty group. "They are certainly not going to say that the death penalty is unconstitutional."
At this point in the death penalty debate, questions of whether it is unconsitutional or unfair are not the same.
CNN Interactive: Analysis
More news analysis by Charles Bierbauer
U.S. Department of Justice
CourtTV Online: Supreme Court
Cornell Legal Information Institute
Supreme Court Historical Society
Death Penalty Information Center
Focus on the Death Penalty -- University of Alaska, Anchorage site
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