Debate forum: 05/05

Forum Center: Stayin’ alive

By Sarah Sidlow
“The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”

So begins a recent story published by the Washington Post, in which the newspaper reports just a few of the results of an ongoing post-conviction review conducted by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project.

According to the report, of 28 examiners connected with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 had overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed – so far. Thirty-two of those defendants were sentenced to death. Fourteen have already been executed.

The NACDL analysis tells an ongoing story in modern crime reporting: there may be an inherent error in the way our justice system sentences people to death. Long lists of convicted and executed prisoners who were found to have been innocent after death and untested chemical cocktails leading to “botched” and painful lethal injections punctuate this story.

As news outlets continue to report on the things that can go wrong, some readers may find that it is indeed time to reconsider America’s use of the death penalty altogether.

Because the system and the science we use to convict and sentence prisoners has proven to be fallible, death penalty opponents claim, we cannot in good conscience allow the system to continue.

Additional reasons for opposing the death penalty also abound: the high cost of execution (even higher than life in prison); racial disparities alleging African Americans and other minorities are more likely to be executed than Caucasian criminals; religious views opposed to ending one’s life, regardless of the reason; inadequate legal representation leading to a conviction where a heftier legal fee may have produced different results; or the fact that more than 139 nations worldwide have abandoned capital punishment in law or in practice.

But just as those who oppose the death penalty continue to espouse their opinions, so too do those who firmly believe in capital punishment.

Proponents of the death penalty maintain that the threat of execution is an effective deterrent against major crime. They claim it provides closure to the victims’ families, who have in many cases been absorbed in long emotional and legal battles. Further, the option of the death penalty, they argue, gives prosecutors another bargaining chip in the plea bargain process – something that is essential to cutting costs in an already overcrowded court system. And even though the media spotlight on recent death penalty investigations has been negative, many proponents believe the science is good; that forensic testing and other methods of modern crime scene science instill faith in the public that justice is being served.

As forensic science continues to improve, and as post-conviction analyses continue to be made, America’s use of capital punishment will remain an ongoing topic of conversation across dinner tables and in classrooms, courtrooms and headlines across the nation.

Reach DCP Editor Sarah Sidlow at


Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Based on recent evidence of decades of forensic failure, is it time to question America’s use of the death penalty?

Debate Left: Thought crime

Response By Ben Tomkins

I have always thought that the death penalty is a necessary and grave component of any legal system. However, it is a sentence that should have an entirely different conceptual approach than the traditional gradation of punishment a legal code seeks to articulate in order to tailor those punishments to the vast assortment of affronts to each other that we’ve chosen to enumerate as crime. 

For me, by the time we are sentencing someone to death, we should be wholly considering the nature of the person we are going to execute. I don’t think that the needs of those who are offended to feel a sense of revenge or closure should be a consideration in that process, as by the time we’re having the conversation about death we are viewing the crime against an individual or group to be a crime that offends us as a society, even if we’ve never met anyone involved. 

Treason is the standard example of a crime that warrants the death penalty. The mistake is to condemn someone with the idea in our head that the betrayal itself is the crime. It isn’t, nor should our anger or self-righteousness be a component in that decision. A person is executed for treason because they have committed a crime that by definition means the risk of allowing them to continue to exist in our society is greater than our ability to prevent them from having meaningful contact with it. 

In that sense, the death penalty is a misnomer. It’s not a penalty, as the idea of punishment carries with it the implication that the individual being punished is experiencing it, and will therefore think twice before they do it again. We could even go further and say that putting a young man in jail for 20 years is being done remove them from society for a sufficient time for age to temper the adrenaline, anger and volatility of youth to the point that, when they get out, they will no longer have the propensity to engage certain types of crimes. 

Death is not a punishment in my mind. The death penalty is a conscious excision rather than a separation of an individual from our society. We’ve come far enough along as a species that we should be able to dispose of archaic notions like eternal suffering or vengeance, as they’re nothing more than rationalizing an equally vicious act and satiating the same urges within ourselves that motivated the crime. We shouldn’t want that person to suffer – they simply can’t continue to be here anymore, and that’s enough. 

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a perfect example of someone whose actions call us to enact a sentence of death. Whether he was brainwashed by his brother or acted on the behest of his own conscience, he still demonstrated that his capacity for extreme acts of destruction that target large groups of random individuals has the capacity to be acted upon. This is a clear-cut example of someone whose chemical makeup and brain functioning has resulted in actions which have categorically demonstrated that if we allow him to continue to exist we are all assuming too great a risk that we could be the next target of his random viciousness. 

One can allow their heart to bleed all over the cover of Rolling Stone, but the whole problem is that it is an appeal to our sense of humanity that makes us most vulnerable to the kind of crimes he committed. Here is a person who blew up a hundred strangers only because he was unable to blow up a thousand. He took advantage of the atmosphere of jubilation, celebration of the human spirit, and thrill of shared human achievement to assist him in delivering the victims into his hands, and did so with a calculated intention. This is a psychopathic thought defined. 

It’s the sober nature of the psychopath, or the unpredictable psychological skewing of a mother who wakes up one day, packs her kids into a car, and drives them into a lake that makes them so dangerous. The unpredictability of the risk and the inability of the average person to pick up on cues of impending horror makes the criminal intolerable to a sane day-to-day existence. That kind of person just doesn’t work in human civilization, and is antithetical to the idea that there are such things as shared human values upon which we can base ethics.
Personally, I think the reason the death penalty is so contentious in our country is that it is handed down for crimes that don’t even come close to meeting those criteria. For instance – and I hope I’m not uncorking a bottle here – killing a police officer is not in-and-of-itself a crime that affronts humanity in that way. A scared kid who gets into a fight with the police and shoots an officer doesn’t deserve the death penalty up front for the act. We have to know his state of mind.

Finally, it is critical that the evidence be so overwhelming that more than one appeal would be legal pomp. Tsarnaev is, again, the perfect example. He’s on tape. There’s no question he did it. The evidence should be so compelling that any reasonable person would come to the same conclusion of guilt. There should be no plausibility issues, as there’s no way to take it back. 

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

Debate Right: Capital punishment: a fit for the crime

Response By Rob Scott

The death penalty, or what is also know as capital punishment or execution, has factions very much entrenched in their beliefs on either side. The issue does not have many shades of gray and is mostly a true black or white issue. For many the belief comes down to a religious reason or the belief the justice system is flawed.

Execution of criminals and political opponents has been used by nearly all societies throughout the history of the world to both to punish crime and to suppress political dissent. One of the most famous examples among Christians would be the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A modern example would be the hanging of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein or the lethal injection of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Currently, there are 32 states in the U.S. utilize capital punishment with 18 states banning its use. Around the world, there are 36 countries that have the death penalty and 139 countries either have abolished its use or have a moratorium.

Capital punishment has been a part of Ohio’s justice system since early in Ohio’s history. From 1803, when Ohio became a state, until 1885, executions were carried out by a public hanging in the county where the crime was actually committed. Since then, Ohio has switched from public hangings to the electric chair to now the lethal injection method for executions. To date, Ohio has executed a total of 393 convicted murderers. 

There are a myriad of philosophical and ethical reasons advocates use regarding the death penalty. However, a majority of Americans still support the use of capital punishment. In a Gallup poll conducted in October 2014, the poll found a solid majority of Americans (63 percent) still favor using the death penalty in murder convictions. Also, Gallup found Americans who favor the death penalty most often cite “an eye for an eye” as the reason they hold their position, with 35 percent mentioning it. “Saving taxpayer money” and “they deserve it” tie as the second most popular reasons Americans volunteer in this open-ended measure, at 14 percent each.

There are misnomers regarding the use of the death penalty. Statistics do show the utilization of the death penalty on a case-by-case basis is costlier to government resources than its non-use. With death penalty cases, there are countless chances on appeal at both state and federal courts with additional petitions for reprieve to the governor and president.

Due to this, the use of the death penalty is a remedy reserved for the most heinous of crimes. Under Ohio law, capital punishment can only be used in capital murder cases. Also, the death penalty can be utilized in the U.S. for treason and espionage. 

With those crimes in mind, and the recent major advances in scientific evidence in the last decade, the death penalty is an appropriate punishment. First, the majority of the American public still supports the use, despite recent news regarding botched lethal injections and questionable scientific evidence years ago.

Second, the utilization of the death penalty does provide a deterrent in society against murder. In a larger sense, capital punishment is the ultimate warning against all crimes. If the criminal knows that the justice system will put him to death, then the system appears more draconian to him. Hence, he is less inclined to break and enter. He may have no intention of killing anyone in the process of robbing them, but he is much more apprehensive about the possibility if he knows he will be executed. 

Third, capital punishment provides prosecutors as well as defense attorneys a valuable tool in plea negotiations for case settlement. In many capital murder cases, there are plea agreements reached on life sentences versus having capital punishment on the table. This provides resolution of capital cases in an expedited fashion and provides a quicker resolution for the victim’s family.

Fourth, there are many victims of a single murder. The criminal gets caught, tried and convicted, and it is understood that the punishment will be severe for capital murders. Unfortunately, the murderer has deprived the victim’s family a loved one. Their grief begins with the murder and likely will not end with the murderer’s execution, but the execution does engender a feeling of relief at no longer having to think about the ordeal – a feeling which often fails to arise while the murderer still lives on. 

Finally, the justice system basically attempts to mete out punishment that fits the crime. The more severe the crime, the more likely result is imprisonment. Petty larceny is not treated with the severity as grand theft auto, and consequently receives proportional time in prison. So if severe – but non-lethal – violence toward another is found deserving of life without parole, why should premeditated murder be given the very same punishment? 

If murder is the willful deprivation of a victim’s right to life, then the justice system’s willful deprivation of the criminal’s right to the same is – even if overly severe – a punishment which fits the most severe crime that can be committed. Without capital punishment, it could be argued that the justice system makes no provision in response to the crime of murder, and thus provides no justice for the victim.

Rob Scott is a practicing attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is the Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party and the founder of the Dayton Tea Party. He can be contacted at or

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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