Tag Archives: death penalty

‘Lessons learned over java’ revisited

[Here’s something else that really isn’t a coffeehouse observation for Coffeehouse Observer, but I thought I’d share it anyway since the basis for it happened during a coffeehouse conversation. And, besides, the hard copy that I’m working from to transfer this into a blog entry has a huge coffee stain on it. That should stand up in any court in the land. I was the opinion page editor of The Reporter in Vacaville back in April 2004 when I wrote this column about a conversation I had with friend Kristen Simmons over coffee in a Vacaville, Calif., coffeehouse. This column was published April 21, 2004.]

Last week while on vacation I had the chance to have coffee with a friend and catch up, as we try to do every few months or so.

And each time we get together, we talk about education – she’s a teacher by raining – and about her niece and nephew she is helping her mother raise. We talk about politics, current events, the war in Iraq.

And nearly without fail, I walk away from these all-too-infrequent meetings feeling I have learned more about myself for having talked with her than I have about her. Perhaps it is the ability of truly natural teachers – regardless of if they ever step into a classroom in front of a herd of young minds – to have you learn without knowing that you are being taught.

Last week’s lesson was on the death penalty. My friend is against it, she says, because even with DNA testing there is still a chance of error. Human beings, after all, take the samples from the people who are being tested and human beings process the samples and human begins collect the data and human beings filed the data. And human beings are fallible.

Anywhere along the line, a sample or procedure or test result or paperwork can be botched or altered. Whatever tiny chance there is of making a mistake that costs a wrongly accused defendant their life is too much, my friends argues.

With the growing number of cases in which DNA evidence has been used to release wrongly imprisoned inmates after years behind bars, my friend has a strong point. Our system is not free of error.

That does not mean we should reduce the human element within the system that determines whether an inmate lives out his or her short days on death row. We might need more human beings in the system.

I have not completely given up on the death penalty. I still strongly believe that it can be used in certain cases where men or women have killed with an inhuman ruthlessness, coldbloodedness or cruelty, where men and women have displayed the evil that goes well beyond that which lies in the heart of an average person.

The U.S. Supreme Court this term is again taking up the issue. In one case, the court will determine if more than 100 killers should get new sentences based on a 2002 ruling that made jurors and not the judge the final arbiters of the death penalty.

Perhaps that would be a good thing, for it may be the adding of human begins – 12 on a jury – that ultimately causes us to retain capital punishment as a last resort. Or cause us to discard it once and for all.