Crime and punishment

Recently, in Lane County, a jury concluded that Angela McAnulty should be put to death for the horrific murder of her 15-year-old daughter, Jeanette Maples. She will be the first woman sentenced to die since capital punishment was reinstated in Oregon in 1984.

The crime was heinous: abuse so protracted, so horrible that the medical examiner could not immediately determine a single cause of death.

While the death of Jeanette Maples defies any attempt at understanding, an abyss, it also raises two questions:

The first is in regard to child abuse as a familiar and harrowing phenomenon in our community. Our children, in significant numbers, are emotionally, physically and sexually abused. Many suffer from chronic neglect. We know this to be true. We also know that it is we who are our children's keepers, and it is to us that they turn, in all their innocence, for protection and nurturing. Yet, we seem helpless to fully address the manifestations or the causes of abuse.

Hence, children too often are the victims of the most egregious and predatory forms of adult pathology, behavior that is insidious and cruel and too often unreported. Certainly, in every way, the details of Jeanette's tortured childhood fit that description.

So where do we as a people find the will to respond to truths that can be so painful that our first instinct is to turn away?

The second question that the death of Jeanette Maples poses is not in regard to the crime, but to the punishment.

Of course, we can argue that sentencing Angela McAnulty to death was the appropriate response. The punishment fits the crime. But as a moral society, can we, with impunity, take the life of another? Or are we better than that? Is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole not a far better alternative?

Roughly 70 percent of Americans favor the death penalty, for reasons that fluctuate. We do know, however, that capital punishment is not a deterrent. Its existence in Oregon did not prevent the death of Jeanette Maples. So why do we continue to use it? Why was it resurrected in Oregon in 1984? Have we concluded that there are some crimes so unspeakable our only response as a society is to kill the perpetrator in return? It is a conundrum that we and other nations have struggled with for centuries.

Today, 137 countries have abolished the death penalty, leaving America in the company of Iraq, North Korea, Congo, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Uganda and China, to name just a few.

There is, however, a truth regarding capital punishment that is as stark as the crimes committed: As long as the death penalty is imposed there is the possibility that an innocent person could be put to death. We are discovering, through the use of DNA and the work of the Innocence Project, that people have been incarcerated for decades for crimes they didn't commit. As of Jan. 23, thanks to the efforts of the project, 266 people previously convicted of serious crimes in the United States — rape, kidnapping, murder — have been freed by DNA testing. Had any one of those wrongly convicted been put to death, the error would have been irretrievable and a grave and terrible injustice would have been committed.

To put anyone to death, their guilt must be known beyond all doubt. It must be an absolute. How could it be otherwise? And yet we also know, from the police to the courts, that our justice system is flawed and not without error. It is also not color-blind. Of course, there are crimes committed (and perhaps the killing of Jeanette Maples falls into such a category) where the guilt of the perpetrator is self-evident. Even confessed. We are certain of the individual's guilt until we are not. The guilt of those 266 people who were ultimately exonerated was decided by juries acting in good faith. We know now that the evidence and testimony, including that of eyewitnesses, were not reliable.

As long as we have the option of imposing the death penalty, the possibility of killing an innocent person will ever be with us. How can it be otherwise? The only rational response is to abolish capital punishment, no matter the monstrous nature of the crime or the heartfelt need for retribution.

Justice must be delivered dispassionately, no matter our own passions. And it is with dispassion that we acknowledge that the death penalty brings a finality that assumes our own infallibility. We know that to be wrong.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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