Death Penalty Needs Fixing, Say Critics

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - The death penalty should be changed or abolished because it is corrupting the U.S. system of justice at all levels, critics alleged on Friday.

"It corrupts all of us. It is corrupting our courts, it's corrupting prosecutors, it's corrupting defense attorneys, it's corrupting juries, it's corrupting our society," said Bryan Stevenson, a defense attorney and professor of clinical law at New York University's School of Law. He was among those participating in a National Press Club discussion on the future of the death penalty.

Stevenson said the system is so corrupt in Alabama that 80 percent of death row inmates face execution for committing crimes against white people, while 65 percent of all murder victims are black.

"The people on death row are not terrorists. They are not Timothy McVeigh. The majority of them are poor, the mentally ill, the wronged," Stevenson said.

Sam Millsap, former district attorney for Bexar County, Texas, said too many innocent people face the death penalty. "It's better that a hundred guilty men go free, than one innocent man gets sentenced to death. It's important that we remember that."

Kenneth Starr, a former U.S. solicitor general and independent counsel who investigated the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, said that while he favors the death penalty, it needs to be fixed. "I am not an abolitionist and never have been," he said.

Starr said the president and governors have the power to grant pardons and clemency and should do so more frequently. It is a power that Starr said has not been used in California since Ronald Reagan was governor.

"There is a frank unwillingness of virtually every governor to exercise that power," he said.

But William Otis, former special White House counsel for President George H.W. Bush, said there are crimes that are too gruesome to be punished by a life prison sentence.

"The burden of proof is on the abolitionists' side, and it is not really enough to show that there are questionable, or sympathetic, or problematic cases, as there are in every aspect of litigation," said Otis. "What they must show is that every execution is wrong."

Otis added that while each case should be decided on its own merit, he believes more murderers should be sentenced to death. "It is the death penalty and not abolition that will save innocent life," he said.

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