Left Justified: The death penalty as the ultimate mistake

By Stanley Campbell

Remember Henry Fonda in the classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Wrong Man? The film is based on a real case of mistaken identity that occurred in New York City in January 1953. Henry Fonda played a financially struggling musician mistakenly identified as a robber. Vera Miles was the suffering wife, who cracked under pressure of her husband’s wrongful accusation and the drawn-out process proving his innocence.

I can’t watch it—I get knots in my stomach imagining myself wrongly accused. As Hitchcock states in a shadowy prologue, authenticity was his primary goal. Through all of this, Hitchcock paid close attention to the mundane details of police procedure, intensifying Fonda’s (and my) desperation.

We know there are people wrongly accused of crimes. We also know that, thanks to students at Northwestern University, some wrongly accused were on death row. And, thanks again to those students and their director, they were saved.

Which is why I am pleased to welcome Rob Warden, Northwestern Law University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions’ executive director, to Rockford. He will be the keynote at Rockford Urban Ministries’ (RUM) 49th annual dinner, Friday, June 24, beginning at 6 p.m. Christ United Methodist Church, 4509 Highcrest Road, will host the affair (call me if you want dinner: 815-964-7111).

The title of his talk is “The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty in America.” It is finally dawning on lawmakers around the country, most recently in Illinois, that capital punishment is terrible social policy. When subjected to a cost-benefit analysis, the ledger is one-sided—huge costs, both social and monetary, and no discernible benefits, other than mollifying a hunger for retribution.

Mr. Warden (who’s been on 60 Minutes) will explain why it costs three to six times as much to execute someone as it does to maintain that person in prison for life.

“I will say (and explain my basis for saying it) that, contrary to what politicians ranging from Al Gore to George W. Bush have insisted, whether out of ignorance or subterfuge, the death penalty does not deter crime,” Warden said. “In fact, I will cite examples of murders that would not have been committed if there had been no death penalty.

“And I will discuss Justice Antonin Scalia’s claim, in Kansas v. Marsh, that there has not been ‘a single case in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit,’” Warden continued. “Scalia added that, ‘If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.’

“Well, I’m shouting from the rooftops” Warden said. “There is overwhelming evidence that a considerable number of innocent persons who have been executed in recent years. To contend that it has not happened even once, as Scalia does, defies the laws of probability and common sense.”

Warden is an award-winning legal affairs journalist. As editor and publisher of Chicago Lawyer magazine during the 1980s, he exposed more than a score of wrongful convictions in Illinois, including cases in which six innocent men had been sentenced to death.

Before founding Chicago Lawyer in 1978, Warden was an investigative reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor at the Chicago Daily News.

Warden has won more than 50 journalism awards, including the Medill School of Journalism’s John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, two American Civil Liberties Union James McGuire Awards, five Peter Lisagor Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Norval Morris Award from the Illinois Academy of Criminology. In 2003, he was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. Hope you can attend the 7 p.m. talk, if not the 6 p.m. supper.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the June 15-21, 2011 issue

One thought on “Left Justified: The death penalty as the ultimate mistake

  • Jul 3, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Left Justified: The death penalty as the ultimate mistake

    By Stanley Campbell


    Just stop and consider all the skum that are let out of prison, rape, kill, young and old women. Some as young as 6 year old some as old as 95. Is your ULTIMATE mistake (for
    not imposing the death penelaty) going to help them and their families cope.
    How many times have we seen these Headlines in the news.
    As you stated you all know someone wrongly accused.

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