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Fix Death Penalty with Scalpel, Not Sledgehammer

By Mark Davis

Before July 1984, I had been fairly ambivalent about the death penalty. It never bothered me that we executed murderers, but nor did I yearn for executions as the only proper way to dispense justice to killers.

At 26, I had been a grownup for only a few years, still negotiating the various forks in the road that would lead to my eventual political stances. But on one summer morning 23 years ago, I became a staunch supporter of the death penalty, and I have not wavered since.

It was the day I witnessed an execution.

As the news director of a Jacksonville radio station, my name came up on the rotating list of media witnesses welcomed to the Florida State Prison for each execution.

Death penalty opponents had long argued for televising executions, presuming the public would share their revulsion. I thus approached the event with a certain anxiety; Florida had not joined the ranks of the states employing the sleepy drabness of lethal injection. This was to be an inmate's appointment with Old Sparky, the electric chair Florida had used since 1924.

Just before 7 a.m., the blinds on our witness room window opened, and we saw a multiple murderer strapped into the chair. Moments later, 2,000 volts of electricity coursed through his body. It is less visually spectacular than one might think - thick straps kept convulsions to a minimum, and a thick rubber veil hid the face of the condemned.

But it is still a lot for the mind to absorb, and as we were led out to share details with other media and then ask our own questions of other attendees, I was still processing the entire sensory experience.

Then I spoke to the victims' family members. From their front row witness seats, they saw the ultimate justice delivered to the man who had brutally killed their loved ones.

They said knowing he was dead would help close their emotional wounds. One told me: "Twenty years from now, as I continue to miss holidays, birthdays, every day with my father, I don't want to think of him eating cafeteria meals and reading novels in the exercise yard."

And a death penalty supporter was born.

I know full well that we can deliver a very harsh punishment through the promise of life without the hope of parole. For some murderers, there may be a mitigating circumstance that makes that the appropriate sentence.

I also know the death penalty in America is the product of a flawed human system. As the ranks grow of inmates released through DNA evidence by the Innocence Project legal clinics, all of us should wonder: Have we ever executed an innocent person?

I would think we almost certainly have, and as a death penalty supporter, I believe I have a special responsibility to adhere to a venerable standard: Better the guilty go free than one innocent man die.

The solution to this is not to scrap the entirety of a capital punishment system that is overwhelmingly just and popular in Texas and around the country. The death penalty issues in each state require scalpels, not sledgehammers.

While we convict people of various crimes based on a standard of surpassing reasonable doubt, I am thoroughly satisfied with reserving the death penalty for those killers who have acted beyond the shadow of a doubt - stories of confession, uncontested witnesses, surveillance video and the like. I will gladly reduce the number of executions to help achieve the goal of certainty in the cases when we do deliver the ultimate punishment.

I don't know if the death penalty is a deterrent, and I don't care. The death penalty rests on the strong foundation of its symmetry and rightness. If that foundation has eroded due to a tiny percentage of cases of human failing, let those be addressed and corrected. We should not succumb to the urge to overreact, sacrificing a just practice that affords both killers and victims the justice they deserve.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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