Friday, April 10, 2009

Death Penalty For Poplawski?

This debate is going to stir Pittsburgh's pot soon enough, so why not start?

We stand ready to stack our revulsion toward Richard Poplawski -- and much (but not all) of his entire clustermuck of a family -- against anyone's.

It is tough to imagine a better case for an execution. A cowardly gun nut kills three police officers by ambush, intensifying the venality by using an assault weapon to prevent help from reaching a victim who is bleeding to death. He is apprehended at the scene; no chance of mistaken identity, no possibility of innocence. He not only confesses but expresses mild regret that he didn't kill another officer. He appears to possess no redeeming value and to offer no mitigating circumstance that might warrant leniency.

We still wouldn't impose the death penalty. Not because this valueless punk deserves to live. Not because we believe a lifetime of shackled reflection is worse than death. Not because we hope that a lifetime of shackled servitude to the most sadistic predator of a cellmate our society could assign to Mr. Poplawski would be better than death. Not because of anything involving Richard Poplawski. This isn't about Richard Poplawski. He deserves to be executed. It is about our society, and about justice . . . or, more accurate, injustice.

The injustice that concerns me does not involve Richard Poplawski; our sole concern regarding Poplawski is to ensure that he is denied every comfort, every kindness, every preference for the remainder of his life.

The relevant injustice is that of the innocent condemned by mistake (or by worse). Humans are imperfect, incapable of devising or implementing a system reliable enough to foreclose the unacceptable risk of an innocent man killed by society for a crime he did not commit. The call on Poplawski would be easy. But most death penalty cases aren't. So long as we have prosecutors who tell a witness that unless she testifies in a certain manner a depraved killer will beat the rap, or law enforcement personnel who confect evidence, or eyewitnesses who didn't see what they thought they saw, or confessions obtained by force, or circumstantial evidence that can't travel as far as a vengeance-bent community wants it to travel, innocent men will continue to be condemned. We do not want to be part of a society that kills the innocent, and we believe that one of the essential safeguards in an inviolate refusal to impose the death penalty.

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