During the 1960’s I was a big fan of the television show The Defenders. It starred E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as father and son lawyers, the latter freshly out of law school. Among the many cases they handled were many dealing with controversial issues such as abortion, free speech and, the one I remember best, the death penalty.

              Like most drama series of the period the cast list of those making two or more appearances shows a cross section of some established stars, a host of familiar character actors, and numerous young players cutting their teeth in preparation for larger, more notable roles ahead. Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Jack Klugman, Branda Vaccaro, Larry Hagman were among this latter group.

              The show’s creator was Reginald Rose who was a highly respected screenwriter and TV writer who was the author of the script for the original movie version of “12 Angry Men”. That movie dealt with a jury deliberating a murder case in which one juror holds out for acquittal and eventually persuades the other jurors to join him in a not guilty verdict, thus preventing a miscarriage of justice.

              The Defenders episodes were infused with this sense of justice. Frankly that TV show was more  influential in convincing me to pursue a law career than any other factor. The death penalty episode had an extremely large dose of this desire for justice. The details escape me but the lawyers were eventually unable to prevent the execution of their client. If my recall is correct, their efforts were not focused on the client’s innocence so much as the moral implications of such punishment in light of some special curcimstances surrounding him.  No matter the story’s details I became a staunch opponent of the death penalty after viewing.

            In the late 1950’s as I was becoming more aware of the world and the large issues as opposed to my playmates and sports and cowboy movies and TV shows, the case of Caryl Chessman in California rose to prominence, especially in the last years of the 50’s into 1960 when he was finally killed in the gas chamber in San Quentin.

             While on death row Chessman wrote four books and received several stays, the last by Governor Pat Brown, father of the current governor  there, early in 1960. His case reached the Supreme Court which ordered a review of his trial record which review purportedly revealed no irregularities. Many notable writers and celebrities protested his coming execution.

              Oddly enough, Chessman was not even a murderer, having been convicted of kidnapping and rape, that combination being a capital offense in California at the time. Committing the same crimes today will not bring you a death sentence. For more see this:

            The Chessman case exposed me to this issue and immediately, while not sympathizing with him per se, I had this sense of the unfairness and injustice of the death penalty.

              Of course being a huge cowboy movie fan, I was used to plots where an accused faced a possible lynching, usually with the hero riding in to prevent this killing at the last minute and then proceeding to show the man’s innocence after all. But in Chessman’s situation, assuming his conviction was justified, it was the penalty, not the guilt, that was contested.

               Much to contemplate for an 11 or 12 year old boy, none too sophisticated and definitely not street smart. Yet in my home there was always a strong vibe of knowing right from wrong, reinforced by the white bread Presbyterian sermons and Sunday school lessons to which I was exposed. So the Chessman death penalty seemed unjust and excessive to me though I doubt I could not have articulated why at the time.

          The Defenders episode, however, crystalized the issue and brought me safely and eternally to the anti-death penalty side of the divide. In the  years subsequent to that TV show, the accumulation of evidence supporting my view has continued while the pro capital punishment crowd has only revenge as a rationale, while raising peripheral arguments in a lame attempt to hide their ultimate true motive.

              Let’s examine some of the “pro” arguments. Probably the most common is that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to possible murderers, forcing them to contemplate that ultimate sentence if caught and convicted. Odd is it not then, that the murder rate in states with the death penalty is higher than that in non-capital punishment states. The table here shows those numbers for the years from 1990 to 2007:

             Too, the death penalty and abortion issues may be conflated into an oversimplification that if you support one you should support the other and if you oppose one you should oppose both. The issue of abortion itself has complexities apart from those possessed by the death penalty so I’m not going to address those here. I will show one comment in response to an anti-death penalty letter in the Post Gazette the other day.

              written by John Lewandowski, November 15, 2010 – 11:53 PM

Only right-to-life activists (I assume this nun is also a right-to-life activist) have a right to oppose the death penalty. Anyone who supports abortion rights but opposes the death penalty seems to have their priorities confused. Death for innocent babies but not for murderers?

I oppose the death penalty because we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) have the right to take anyone’s life away, be they born or unborn.

                Here is the letter that drew this comment and the entire thread of comments, including from yours truly:

                 In that thread you will note that one commentator claims he would rather execute a murderer  than pay the costs of life imprisonment. As rebutted by me, using figures from memory, the fact is a capital punishment case is much more expensive to the taxpayers than a non-capital one. There are many factors involved but some information here will show this more clearly:  Though these costs vary for many reasons, a number of states have done studies concluding the death penalty is vastly more expensive, as demonstrated in that article.

                 There is more than a suggestion of racial bias in such death sentences, a notion explored by another letter writer.

                   Statistics can be very misleading and so many elements enter into a consideration of when a death sentence will be pursued. Coupled with that is the broad disparity within a state as to which local jurisdictions are more prone to pursue that penalty. Instructive is this piece on Texas ” justice”.

                A surprisingly comprehensive explication of the death penalty, its background, facts, and opinions pro and con can be found at this site:

              Although cited above with regards to the costs of execution, here is a link to the basic web site which covers the topic extensively:

                There is also a web site dedicated to promoting the use of the death penalty:

                Interestingly on its home page is this quotation:

           “If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.”

          John McAdams – Marquette University/Department of Political Science, on deterrence

        Since the matter of deterrence has been discussed and, I believe, refuted, it appears we have merely killed a bunch of murderers.

        Now we come to the elephant in the room. Innocence. Whether it was in the same favorite episode or not, The Defenders was also where I first heard the legal maxim ” It is better that 12 guilty men go free than one innocent man go to jail”. Unfortunately, too many innocent men and women go to jail, many given death sentences.

            The Innocence Project was established to prove, through DNA evidence, the innocence of prisoners in both death penalty and non-capital cases. It has been successful, which I suppose is a double-edged sword in that while it must be enormously satisfying to bring about the release of someone wrongfully convicted after many years, it is also discouraging to learn there are so many cases of wrongful conviction. Here is its web site: Click on Fact Sheets and you will find statistics realted to their work, though it appears not all exonerations were the direct result of their efforts. Nonetheless, the figures are disturbing.

            As the dead have a difficult time proving their innocence and post-death investigations are often incomplete, the actual number of wrongful executions is arguable. My position is that even one indicates the death penalty is unsustainable. It is undeniable that over a hundred inmates have been released from death row as innocent, thankfully before their sentence was carried out. Note though that one comment in the thread in the Post-Gazette above claims that this proves the system works, even if it took twenty years or more to secure the inmate’s freedom.

            The Innocence Project site also lists several causes of false convictions including misapplication of scientific evidence, government misconduct, eyewitness misidentification, and perjured testimony by jailhouse snitches.

                Here is the tale of one unfortunate in Texas who, though executed, may not only not have been guilty but that no crime was committed at all. It is an arson case.

             The Lone Star State has been particularly agressive in utilizing the death penalty, innocence, retardation, juvenile status and gender be damned. Defense attorneys in death penalty cases there have been inexperienced, overburdened, absent, drunk and asleep.

             In reality these side issues merit exploration in much greater depth on their own. In a way though, that would be piling on. To me the mere chance that one innocent person would be put to death in this unholy quest for revenge is sufficient in and of itself to totally abolish capital punishment. That it has not proven to be a deterrent, that it is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and that it is applied unevenly, possibly even racially, only buttresses the conclusion that our civilized society is ill-served by its continuation.

                On all those levels, then, the death penalty is morally repugnant. It accomplishes nothing but killing. Let us do the right thing and abolish it.

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