Thursday, September 4, 2014

Death Penalty in News: New Evidence Exonerates Men for Whom Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Promoted Death Penalty

As the New York Times notes today, a judicial development in North Carolina this week provides a "textbook example" of much that is broken in the American justice system, as well as more evidence that 'the death penalty is irretrievably flawed as well as immoral." The judicial development: as Ed Mazza reports (along with Jonathan Drew) at Huffington Post, on Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Leon Sasser overturned the conviction of Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, his half-brother, for the rape and murder of Sabrina Buie in Robeson County, North Carolina, in 1983.

McCollum and Brown, who are both mentally challenged African-American men and who were teens at the time of their conviction, have been on death row in Raleigh for 30 years for a crime that DNA evidence now proves they did not commit. As the Times editorial points out,

Virtually everything about the arrests, confessions, trial and convictions of Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown was polluted by official error and misconduct.

There was no physical evidence linking either teen to the crime or the scene of the crime. There is strong evidence that the confessions they provided after unrelenting interrogation by police, without lawyers or parents present, were coerced. The man whose DNA has been found on a cigarette butt at the scene of the crime, Roscoe Artis, was a suspect from the start, since he had a long history of sexual assaults against women, but a request of the police to have a fingerprint from the crime scene tested for a match with Artis was ignored, and the request was not mentioned to the prosecutors of the two teens falsely convicted of the crime.

Despite the many holes in the evidence and the irregularities in the way in which confessions were wrung out of two teens questioned with no lawyers or parents present, in 1994, none other than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the case as an illustration of why the death penalty is needed. In that year, when Justice Harry Blackmun announced his opposition to the death penalty in the case of Callins v. Collins, Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion stating,

The death-by-injection which Justice Blackmun describes looks pretty desirable next to that. It looks even better next to some of the other cases currently before us, which Justice Blackmun did not select as the vehicle for his announcement that the death penalty is always unconstitutional, for example, the case of the 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!

Scalia would, that is to say, have had two innocent men put to death for a crime that DNA evidence now conclusively proves they did not commit. As he brushed off Blackmun's insistence that the death penalty has been a failure because it has been consistently used with clear racial bias and with bias against those on the socioeconomic margins of society . . . . 

Given his fierce defense of the death penalty while he just as fiercely argued for the rights of the Green family of Hobby Lobby to refuse contraceptive coverage to their employees because the Greens imagine that emergency contraceptives are abortifacients (they're not), one has to wonder where and how Justice Scalia grounds the ethic of life that all Catholics are called to promote in contemporary culture. Is Scalia's position that mentally retarded African-American men are somehow less worthy of life than is every zygote or even every potential zygote, that contraceptives reimagined as abortifacients against sound scientific evidence are a greater threat to the value of life in contemporary culture than is capital punishment?

Or than raw racism is, for that matter? Or economic injustice?

Listening to Scalia spout off about these issues reminds me all over again why, when many of my fellow Catholics start talking "pro-life" and "culture of death" and "cooperation with evil" (i.e., with healthcare plans providing contraceptive coverage), I just turn a deaf ear. I do so because I actually believe in an ethic that cherishes the sanctity of life, and there's nothing in the least pro-life about what Scalia and Catholics who stand with him believe.

In fact, if their positions don't promote a culture of death, I'm really not sure how to define either a culture of death or a pro-life ethic in any credible way.

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