The Death Penalty on Trial

by Bill Kurtis
Interviewed by Daryl W. Clemens

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Bill Kurtis about his new book “The Death Penalty on Trial- Crisis in American Justice”. The book outlines the current state of affairs with regards to the death penalty, and the reasons why its opponents say it doesn’t work. DNA results have called numerous cases into question, and prompted a moratorium in Illinois. Death row inmates in Illinois have now had their sentences commuted to life in prison.

The book presents how Mr. Kurtis came to oppose the death penalty after having supported it for most of his life. It presents the arguments against it, and two cases where innocent men were convicted and sent to death row.

I spoke with Mr. Kurtis for about 45 minutes on March 2, 2005. I pointed out right from the start that I thought the book was very good, and that I found most of his points difficult to argue with. I chose six questions that I thought would help people further understand the issues presented.

D.C. “Do you think that the 68% figure [errors in death penalty cases] given by Prof. Leibman represents true innocence”?

B.K. “No”.

D.C.”What do you think the rate of true innocence is? On death row”?

B.K. “1/3 (of 6,000) is the number given by prosecutors”.

D.C.”In non-death penalty cases”?

B.K. “No Figure. The overwhelming number of cases makes it impossible to conduct research. We see DNA clearing many rape cases. Kathleen Zellner is having great success pulling old cases from the evidence vault. If we see mistakes in 68% of the most important cases, we have to expect at least that many in “normal” cases”.

D.C.”Do you think we have executed anyone in error”?

B.K. “Yes”

D.C.”If so do you have a specific case in mind”?

B.K. “Todd Willingham in Texas. Ernest Willis was released from death row on a case with much the same evidence. It’s hard to go back. The Innocence Project is trying, but we have yet to find the “Smoking Gun”.

[Take a look at the article at the above link. You may read that and think to yourself, well the Tribune went and found four fire investigators who don’t know what they’re doing, and who just agreed with the theory the paper presented. You couldn’t be more wrong. I don’t recognize Kendall Ryland’s name, but Gerald Hurst, John Lentini and John DeHaan are among the top arson experts in the U.S.. Also interesting reading is a copy of Gerald Hurst’s report on the Ernest Willis case (although the copy that I had linked here is no longer available).  Kendall Ryland  contributed a report that is part of that document. -Editor]

D.C. “How many cases did you examine before you selected the two you present in the book”?

B.K. “100. We looked at a synopsis of each one. I wanted a white person, because I was convinced that discrimination was a factor. Also someone who was not guilty of some other crime”.

D.C. “Most people assume that a trial is a search for the truth. In fact it is anything but. Do you think we would be better served by a less adversarial system”?

B.K. “Something has to change. The adversarial system is weak and imbalance often occurs. Prosecutors are respected and feel responsible for the safety of the community. They also have some hope for advancement, some have become Governors. Public defenders are not respected, are poorly paid and have no room for advancement. They are almost like social workers. The English system has barristers, who must pass a special trial bar to try criminal cases and who switch sides during the proceedings. This helps keep a balance. English system also makes use of court appointed experts, rather than each side calling 3 experts who contradict each other”.

D.C. “I agree with your arguments against the death penalty, but I still think that some people deserve to die for what they’ve done. Are there any circumstances under which you would consider the death penalty appropriate? DNA, Witnesses, Confession”?

B.K. “No. Some have tried to set the standard to “Beyond all doubt”, others have limited it to a particularly heinous crime- the killing of a policeman. Once you get to that point “Take the big step”. We are sending mixed messages, it’s wrong for you to kill, but it’s ok for the State. 110 Countries have abolished the death penalty”.

D.C. “What if the offender requests the death penalty”?

B.K. “Don’t turn over punishment to the evil ones. Not a bad argument in favor of life without parole is that you have to face what you’ve done every day. It’s too easy on us and them”.

D.C. “As detectives/crime scene investigators, what lessons should we learn from these cases”?

B.K. “Don’t abandon open minded search too soon. Don’t get tunnel vision. Even if the prosecutor has decided that “this is our guy, now help me build a case” the detective has to have some independence to investigate in other directions. Realize that we are all fallible and all make mistakes. That things we believe to be absolutes may not be”.

I highly recommend the book. You may or may not find yourself in agreement with Mr. Kurtis’ case against the death penalty, but the book is worth reading solely for the case studies presented.

Daryl W. Clemens

Related Links:

The Innocence Project

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