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Public Statements

The Death Penalty: An Honest Debate

Op-Ed

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The Death Penalty: An Honest Debate

By: Congressman Lamar Smith

The issue of the death penalty sparks significant debate. Death penalty opponents claim that innocent individuals receive the death penalty and point to the number of purported exonerations of defendants on death row.

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) has published a list of 120 so-called "innocent" defendants. Each time the list increases, DPIC issues another public declaration decrying yet another injustice.

What few people know is that DPIC's claims of "innocence" and "exoneration" are highly misleading. They fail to distinguish between the concepts of "actual innocence" and "legal innocence."

Actual innocence means the defendant did not actually commit the crime or is otherwise not culpable. Legal innocence means the defendant cannot legally be convicted of the crime, even if the person committed the crime or was somehow responsible for the offense.

The DPIC list includes a number of "exonerations" that were purely legal and not based on factual innocence. It includes many cases in which the defendants, in fact, perpetrated the crimes but were not legally found guilty for a variety of reasons. Some estimate that as many as two-thirds of the defendants on the DPIC list are not cases of "actual innocence."

Since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in our country in 1976, approximately 7,500 defendants have been sentenced to death. Less than one percent of these defendants can even claim they are actually or "factually innocent." DNA testing has supposedly exonerated only 14 death row defendants, or less than 2 out of every one thousand defendants.

No one can provide credible evidence that a single innocent person has been executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. We now have in place greater safeguards and technologies to ensure accuracy at the most important phase of a prosecution - the trial.

The death penalty significantly deters crime. Research shows that a swift and accurate death penalty actually saves innocent lives. It removes killers and deters other criminals from killing.

All of the valid statistical studies - those that examine a period of years, and control for national trends - consistently show that each execution prevents, on average, about 18 murders.

Aside from the protection of the public and the just punishment of the guilty, the death penalty enables victims' families to see that justice is done. Unfortunately, death penalty opponents often minimize or ignore the suffering of victims and survivors.

The death penalty debate should - and will - continue. But the misleading claims made by opponents should stop; and an honest debate should begin.

Texas Congressman Lamar Smith is the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee which has jurisdiction over criminal sentencing issues.


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