Over the last thirty years I’ve kept in my mind the fact that there are about 3,500 counties in the U.S. I learned this when we developed a CD-ROM streamflow database and needed to code in the county in which each stream gauge was located.
But, my recollection was off a bit–there are 3,144 counties and “county equivalents” in the U.S. I learned this a few days ago from the Los Angeles Times, along with a more disturbing fact–two percent of those counties account for more than half the executions in the U.S.
I’ve long opposed the death penalty, but that opposition was hard to maintain in the face of some of the cruel crimes people commit. Some people just need killing, is how a not-liberal friend put it, crudely. Even after I’d come to my opposition, I would find myself throwing horrible crimes up in front of my more dogmatic friends to try to shake their certainty, and perhaps mine. The death penalty, war and abortion are not easy things to be thoughtful about–it’s much easier to be dogmatic.
What initially brought me to opposition to the death penalty was the certainty that it would be, that it had been, applied in error. By error I mean the clear case where the accused was not even involved in the crime. Many people have been exonerated from death row, proving that convictions have been made in error. I’ve heard people argue that there is no proof that the wrong person has ever been executed, but that notion is laughable. I am certain that by now someone has established error in execution “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Later I came to understand the bigger problem with the death penalty: when you did do the crime, your likelihood of receiving the death penalty depended on your race, the race of your victim, your wealth and where you lived. Some argue that the relatively small chance of erroneously executing someone is the price we pay for safety or deterrence or accountability or whatever. But, the effect of jurisdiction, at least, is huge and systematic–those two percent of counties contain only about 16% of the U.S. population, but commit 52% of the executions. At a finer scale, the differences can be even greater:
[T]he probability that a notification to seek death will
be filed in Baltimore County is over 13 times higher than in
Baltimore City, even after taking into account important
case characteristics. The probability of being death
notified if a case is in Baltimore County is over five
times greater than if it occurred in Montgomery
County and three times greater than if it occurred in
Anne Arundel County.
R. Paternoster et al., “An Empirical
Analysis Of Maryland’s Death Sentencing System With Respect To The Influence Of Race And Legal Jurisdiction” (2003) (most easily available in The 2% Death Penalty (pdf))
As long as we allow any discretion in the application of the death penalty these differences will remain. It’s human nature. I now believe that having to forgo revenge is a relatively small price to pay to maintain our morality.
With respect to the veracity of eyewitness identification, read Picking Cotton, by Jennifer Thompson, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo. This is a story that demonstrates the cruelty, the failings and the beauty of human beings.