We saw a lot of bad death penalty-related news last year–the probable execution of innocent men in Texas, the attacks by a prosecutor on the Medill Innocence Project students at Northwestern University, and the horrific failed attempt at an execution in Ohio.
But the year also brought this news: the American Law Institute, which has been credited with creating the intellectual framework for the modern capital justice system almost 50 years ago, apparently pronounced its project a failure and walked away from it last year.
This could represent a significant shift away from putting prisoners to death in the U.S. A Berkeley law professor quoted in a New York Times story about A.L.I. called the group the death penalty’s “only intellectually respectable support.”
The Institute did not decide formally to oppose the death penalty as some of its members apparently wanted, but in a statement last October conceded there are “intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.”
Seems to me, that’s tantamount to saying there’s no way for state killing to be done fairly or right.
A study by the A.L.I. apparently pointed to problems that have been well known to death-penalty opponents for years: racial disparities in sentencing and application, expense, politics and the potential — not so potential as we saw last year — that the state would execute the innocent.
Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the death of his children in a fire that an investigator ruled accidental, not arson. The decision by the A.L.I. comes too late to save him or others like him but it might give death penalty supporters pause. It’s certainly a shot in the arm for opponents. Maybe 2010 will be the year that the country wakes up to the same intractable instutitional, not to mention moral, obstacles that A.L.I. found, finally, to legalized killing by the state.
The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.