Its been about two months since Governor Chafee signed the bill that posthumously pardoned John Gordon, the last man executed by the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. During the hearing a great many people spoke eloquently about the terrible injustice of a man who (in hindsight) was so clearly innocent that he propelled the discontinuation of the Death Penalty in Rhode Island. Some spoke of racism, of frenzied crowds, or proper legal procedure. Others reiterated the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of putting people to death, made only more horrid when someone is likely innocent.
I wasn’t so eloquent. I was blunt, and spoke about innocent people locked away right now, and how legal technicalities can bury evidence that would exonerate someone and I even named names. But that was about “actual innocence.” What about the Death Penalty in general?
Governor Chafee is currently battling the federal government, who want the option of killing a Rhode Island resident upon conviction and sentencing by a jury. Chafee clearly is saying it doesn’t matter what the charge, there should be no death penalty. What do others think? Its long been said we live in the most Catholic state in the union, and the Church has long been one of the staunchest international opponents of the death penalty. But I’m not convinced that tenets of a church doctrine too often filter down to the card carriers. And it seems that one is more likely to get a “kill em” response from an average citizen in any situation where there is a public case on TV.
Is it time for a legislator to introduce a bill and have this public debate? Would the Attorney General support the death penalty? It seems he would. Jason Pleau, according to his lawyers, was prepared to plead guilty in exchange for Life Without Parole. Rather than accept that offer, A.G. Kilmartin dismissed the charges against him, leaving Pleau only open to federal prosecution and the possible death penalty. Kilmartin clearly knows it is illegal for the state to kill someone as punishment for a crime, and his job is to uphold the laws of Rhode Island.
Personally, I say bring on the death penalty. Under federal habeas corpus law section 2255, death penalty states receive more scrutiny of the case. It makes it vastly more expensive (California is spending tens of millions just to maintain their death penalty cases), and innocent people will die from time to time (Texas seems to have clearly killed two in recent years), but more people will be exonerated (Louisiana and Illinois have each cleared dozens over the past decade). Federal habeas section 2254, where there is no death penalty, allows for far more innocent people to rot away in prison. They are accused of terrible crimes, will likely never be paroled, and generate far less public oversight because it takes “natural causes” to kill them rather than a needle.
With conflict within the government itself, this discussion needs to be more fleshed out. Across the nation people hold this debate. Some tend to simplify it as those who support killing are “tough,” and those who oppose it are “soft.” Some believe the court system is infallible, and innocent people never get put to death. Some are strong enough to hold to their beliefs even when placed in a challenging situation. Does Chaffee support what Pleau did? Of course not. Does he think the man should be let go tomorrow? Of course not. But props to him for standing up for his beliefs; its pretty rare to see these days.