Journalist Calls the Church a Key to Ending Death Penalty

NEW YORK—It's just a matter of time.

Soon, said author Alan Berlow, a convict will be executed in an American prison and later found to have been innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt.

For that reason, Berlow hopes Catholics are listening to Pope John Paul II and will demand an end to capital punishment.

“When a convict is killed, and later exonerated, people will start taking a more serious look at the death penalty,” said Berlow. “Many people who favor the death penalty back off that position when confronted with the very real possibility that we might put to death an innocent person who was wrongly convicted.”

Berlow, a free-lance journalist and author of Dead Season: A Story of Murder and Revenge, wrote a feature in the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine that illustrates alarming flaws in the criminal justice system. He said 80 inmates have been acquitted of their crimes while awaiting executions since states resumed the death penalty in 1976.

Unless dramatic improvements are made to perfect the nation's criminal justice system, he said, innocent suspects will continue to be convicted and, short of a perfect system, he contended, the death penalty must be abolished.

“We're a long way from ridding this country of capital punishment, but we are certainly farther along because of the Catholic Church,” said Berlow, who is not Catholic. “The Pope has been a major, consistent moral presence regarding the death penalty. He's a credible, unmoving force that is of tremendous value.”

If the Holy Father's opinion of capital punishment was not already clear to Americans, he hammered it home during his visit to St. Louis in January 1999. While there, he asked Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Protestant, to commute the death sentence of convicted murderer Darrell Mease to life in prison. The governor agreed.

Poor And Minorities

Berlow's opposition to the death penalty is formed around his belief that minorities and the poor have lesser chances at receiving fair trials in American courts. He describes them as easy targets in a culture that's intolerant of crime.

His Atlantic feature detailed an array of murder convictions in which the “guilty” have later been found to be innocent or were originally tried in what amounted to kangaroo courts.

He tells the story of Aden Harrison Jr., a black man indicted for murder in Georgia. Harrison's court-appointed attorney was 83 years old, aloof, and had once served as imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Dennis Williams, a murder convict who was exonerated after an investigation by Northwestern University journalism students in 1996, was defended by a lawyer who was simultaneously defending himself in an Illinois disbarment proceedings. Another suspect, a retarded man with an IQ of 80, was allowed to defend himself in court.

“How many cases of prosecutor-ial misconduct will it take before the public is convinced our system isn’t working right?” Berlow asked. “These cases of prosecutorial misconduct, coupled with inadequate defense, are easy to find. Yet to the American public, all murder suspects are monsters who deserve to die. In fact, some are innocent people wrongly accused and convicted for political expedience.”

Berlow reported on an institutionalized conflict of interest, in which the same state that wants a murder conviction typically hires and pays the attorney who defends the suspect. The public defenders, or state-appointed defense attorneys, are given precious little money to work with. Some public defenders don’t clear $12 an hour, and work dozens of cases at once.

“By failing to fund counsel for indigents adequately a state or locality not only saves an enormous amount of money but also makes meaningful defenses difficult if not impossible, thus easing the govern-ment's burden in winning convictions and imposing death sentences, and diminishing the likelihood that heinous errors will ever be discovered,” Berlow wrote.

Berlow said widespread support of capital punishment mostly reflects ignorance of the issue.

“[It] is based in a simple desire for revenge,” Berlow told the Register. “People in this country are presented daily with media evidence of horrible crimes against humanity, committed by horrible people who must be guilty. This makes them want revenge.”

Impossible Perfection

Not true, said Father George William Rutler, author and priest in the Archdiocese of New York. Although he credits John Paul for his sincere belief that bloodless ways are available to protect innocent lives from convicted murderers, Father Rutler said the system will never be that perfect.

“It's not accurate to characterize our penal system, in this country, as one generic entity,” Father Rutler told the Register. “We have all sorts of different kinds of prisons, in many different conditions, run by an array of different agencies, all with varying levels of security. Americans rightly do not trust the prison system to keep murderers locked up. So no Catholic needs to suffer a crisis of conscience for supporting the death penalty.”

Dan Misleh, policy adviser on nonviolence issues for the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C., said Father Rutler is correct: “It is true that the Catholic Church allows for the death penalty,” said Misleh.

But he said Catholics in America, most of whom support the death penalty, should embrace the Pope's opposition to the death penalty for the reasons Berlow described.

“Because we have a penal system in the United States that makes it possible to keep convicted murderers from ever returning to the street,” Misleh told Register, “there's very little wiggle room for American Catholics to support capital punishment. Bloodless penalties that protect innocent lives, such as life sentences for murderers, are more in keeping with the Gospel of life.”

Education for Life

Berlow thinks education is key to curbing public support of the death penalty. If votes reflected knowledge, rather than emotion, Berlow said political support for capital punishment would wane in response to election and polling results.

“When you present people with very real situations, such as the prospect of innocent people being executed, the support drops off,” he said. “When you ask about the death penalty in the context of it being racially biased, it loses a few more points of support. Considering the current state of our criminal justice system, it's difficult to make a moral argument in favor of the death penalty. Most politicians know this, but they don’t care. They make their decisions based on polling numbers.”

Innocent mistakes and lack of adequate defense counsel account for most wrongful murder convictions. But in his years of journalistic research, Berlow said he has found many murder convictions in which prosecutors ignored exculpatory evidence.

He claims to have seen cases in which prosecutors have hidden facts that would have exonerated suspects. He knows of prosecutors who have fabricated evidence to aid in their prosecutions.

“Sometimes it's because someone is running for higher office, and they need a conviction in an emotionally charged case,” Berlow said.

“Many times the police and prosecutors ignore facts that would clear a suspect simply because they want to believe they have the right guy. They don’t want to face the fact they might be going after an innocent man.

Many times they convince themselves they are prosecuting a bad person, even if he may not be guilty of this particular crime.”

Berlow urged Catholics to arm themselves with facts and examine closely the murder convictions in their own home-towns. He said few Americans, Catholic or not, can support the government execution of an innocent man.

“Innocent convicts on death row are the canary in the coal mine,” said Berlow. They are the red flag saying if this many people on death row were wrongly convicted, how many other innocent suspects are convicted of lesser crimes? Our criminal justice system is seriously flawed, and we have no business killing people unless and until it improves.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.