Death Sentence Requires Long, Careful Process


Kirk Bloodsworth spent nearly 10 years waiting to die on death row following his conviction in 1984 for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.

He was freed when a DNA test exonerated him.

Rolando Cruz was sentenced to death in 1985 for the murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Nine years later, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Another man confessed to the crime. Cruz was freed after his retrial in November 1995. The judge entered a directed verdict of not guilty without even hearing Cruz's defense. Three prosecutors and four law enforcement officers involved with the prosecution of Cruz were indicted for obstruction of justice in the case.

We reel in shock and anger at vicious crimes like those for which Bloodsworth and Cruz were convicted. We demand justice -- and we demand it fast.

When a suspect is arrested, tried and convicted, it often seems that proper justice demands the death penalty. The offender must be punished. An eye for an eye is only fair for the suffering that has been inflicted on the victim, relatives and friends. And it must be made very, very clear to others considering such crimes that there will be a heavy price to pay.

But sometimes, as the cases of Bloodsworth and Cruz attest, mistakes are made. The real killers are left unpunished.

Seventy-five of those mistakes were highlighted at the recent National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, hosted by Northwestern University's law school. Organizers identified 73 men and two women released from death row, their cases reversed, since a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the re-institution of the death penalty.

The jury is still out on whether capital punishment is proper -- though our guts tell us that those who commit vicious crimes deserve to forfeit their right to life. It's not clear about how effective the death penalty is at deterring such crimes. It seems to take too long between conviction and the carrying out of the sentence.

Yet, in our thirst for justice, can we afford to be any less careful than we are?

The 75 people released from death row in the last two decades tell us the answer is, "No, we cannot." True justice demands such care.

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