For many who remember the terrible crime, the huge outcry and the media circus around the 1989 “Central Park Jogger” case, which was BIG national news, it may have come as a surprise to learn that all 5 of the teenagers convicted were in fact innocent.
But it probably shouldn’t have.
The film The Central Park Five, recently premiered on PBS, offers an important cautionary tale about how a rush to judgment, fueled by all-in media coverage of a particularly heinous crime, increases the chances that criminal justice officials will make critical mistakes, or engage in deliberate misconduct. The Reggie Clemons case, tainted by allegations of police abuse during the investigation and prosecutorial misconduct during the trial, is a reminder that a process compromised in this way can result in a death sentence.
At the other end of the spectrum, a rush to judgment can occur when there is a callous indifference on the part of authorities toward a crime they may perceive as less important because it was committed in a marginalized community. That’s what seems to have happened in the Carlos De Luna case, where an almost certainly innocent man was put to death for a crime another man named Carlos probably committed.
The existence of the appeals process has created another kind of rush to judgment, at least in capital cases. It was a desire to speed up executions that led Congress in 1996 to pass (and President Bill Clinton to sign) the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a law designed to limit federal habeas corpus appeals.
But short-circuiting the appeals process can lead to major injustices. As only the most current terrible example, AEDPA was recently cited by two federal judges to bar Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill from appealing his death sentence, even though every doctor who has examined him now says he is “mentally retarded,” which would make it unconstitutional to execute him.
The clear lesson: judgment should not be rushed.
Which is why it is so disturbing that officials in executing states like Arizona and Florida are seeking ways to speed up their death penalty systems. Florida especially, which has sent 24 people wrongly to death row – more than any other state – ought to be looking to slow things down, not speed them up. So should Arizona, where 8 people have been exonerated and freed from death row, the 6th most of any state.
In California there is a proposal to speed up executions despite the fact that almost half the state’s voters recently opted to abolish capital punishment altogether. Even more unsettling is that this proposal also seeks to resurrect the state’s infamous gas chamber.
Executions are irreversible and any policy that seeks to rush prisoners to the gallows is a formula for disaster. As the only punishment that takes place at the end of the appeals process (a prison sentence begins the moment a conviction is secured), death sentences create a perverse incentive to race through appeals toward what is euphemistically called “finality”, even though such rushing only increases the chances of an irreversible mistake.
People, authorities, and the media will continue to rush to judgment. Heinous crimes, understandable emotional reactions, media frenzies and political pressures guarantee it. All the more reason we should abolish capital punishment altogether, to avoid rushing right into the most terrible injustice of all.