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Setting the Bar on Capital Punishment

January 28th, 2011

I was listening to Charles Adler the other day and he seemed bemused by the recent Abacus poll that said 66% of respondents are in favour of the death penalty, but only 41% are in favour of actually reinstating capital punishment. It was, he said, a typically Canadian response: we favour the penalty, but don’t want the fight.

elmuseet_elektrisk_stolHe seems to miss, or ignore the possibility that you can favour it in principle, but not trust it in practice. My man Russ Campbell doesn’t, (by the way, buy his book) arguing he’s in favour as long as we set the bar so high, mistakes can’t be made:

Set the bar high so we are unlikely to execute innocent people, but don’t victimize society a second time by having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to house and guard killers, rapists and child molesters, who will not ever be rehabilitated.

Which leads to the question, how high is high enough?  If, for example, a young man is convicted of killing an ex-police officer, on duty as a security guard, with a sawed off shotgun. If, after seventeen years, all his appeals are exhausted and the system has found him guilty over and over again, is that a high enough bar? Twenty years? Twenty five?

Under those circumstances, if Iowa had the death penalty in 1977, Terry Harrington would almost certainly be dead. In July 1977 an ex-cop was killed by a shotgun blast while working as a security guard at a car dealership. Nineteen year old Harrington was at an Ohio Players Concert in Omaha, across the river, the night the murder took place. None the less the young football player, smart enough to be considered for a Yale scholarship (according to Harrington himself), found himself accused of the crime.

Harrington was duly convicted, even though he had the best legal representation (or was that, a legal aid lawyer who wasn’t licensed to practice in Iowa?). His appeals process exhausted, Harrington was in prison for life, with no possibility of parole.

Along came prison barber Anne Danaher. She believed his story of innocence and, despite having even less legal training than Harrington’s trial lawyer, Danaher went to work. One day she requested the police files on the case, without identifying herself as working for Harrington. What she found in the multitude of files was a game changer: withheld police reports that identified another suspect, even though police testified at trial there never was another suspect.

After twenty-five years in prison, well past the point where he would have been executed in some states, Terry Harrington was released from jail. And while some may still argue he is guilty, it took twenty five years to get Terry Harrington below the bar.

It’s not a Canadian compromise to agree with capital punishment in principle but not in practice, it’s sound policy based on the evidence.


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