Commentary: The Death Penalty And Our Imperfect Justice System

On May 6, 1851, in Kenosha, Wis., John McCaffary went on trial for murdering his wife. Ten days later, McCaffary was convicted of willful murder. He was executed by hanging on August 21, 1851 in a way that was so gruesome that it horrified the nearly 3,000 that were in attendance. After McCaffary’s execution, a movement was started to abolish the death penalty in Wisconsin.

On July 10, 1853, the Death Penalty Repeal Act was signed in to law. One hundred and fifty eight years later, Wisconsin has been without a death penalty law longer than any other state in America. However, it has not stood this long without efforts by some lawmakers and advocates to bring back the death penalty. Their belief is that it’s a necessary tool to not only deal with those people who commit horrific crimes, but to also serve as a deterrent. Also, families of the victims need closure; to know that the person responsible has paid the ultimate price for their crimes — and will never hurt anyone else again. Unfortunately, there are times where the person who was thought responsible may not be. With that said, I would like to share a personal story with you.

In 1964, my aunt was raped and murdered in an alley in West Philadelphia. She had been washing clothes at the Laundromat next door. She was just 12 years old. The story made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which my mother still has a copy of. The man who was arrested and convicted of this crime owned a shoe repair shop on the other side of the alley where she was found. His life sentence conviction was based on traces of wax and fibers on her body that matched materials found in his shop, as well as the testimony of a forensic crime lab worker who examined her body and found the evidence. However, it was discovered that the lab worker was a junior high school dropout who had committed perjury and lied about her credentials. So a new trial was ordered, with the same result: a life sentence for first-degree murder.

Ever since his conviction, there had been questions about his guilt. There were grassroots organizations that took up his cause and used this case as an example of innocent people serving time for crimes that they didn’t commit. In 2004, after 40 years in prison, he was released, much to the shock and outrage of my family. I never knew my aunt; she died four years before I was born. But I have seen the hurt and pain whenever my family talks about her. Some of them wanted him to receive the death penalty. It often made me wonder: what if he had been put to death, only to find out later that he was innocent?

In a perfect world and a perfect system, we would know for certain. Unfortunately, our criminal justice system, while very good, is imperfect. Police misconduct, shoddy investigations, mistaken identity and a court system that’s too often based on economics and race have played a significant role in a disproportionate amount of minority death row inmates in prisons across the country. When states such as Illinois and New Jersey are overturning convictions and establishing a moratorium on capital punishment, and organizations like the Innocence Project are successfully reversing convictions of the poor and disenfranchised of all races based on DNA evidence, it shows that our criminal justice system is badly in need of an overhaul.

I feel much sympathy for all of the families who have lost loved ones to unspeakable crimes committed by sick individuals. But I also know that the death penalty will not bring those loved ones back. The question that we have to ask ourselves is: can we rely on an imperfect system to make the tough call — putting a person to death, with the chance that we might be wrong?

Kudos to the state of Wisconsin for continuing to answer that question 158 years later.

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