The deep shame of capital punishment in America

Even if you support the death penalty, you shouldn't support the flawed way our government enacts it

Death penalty
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File))

Last week was a memorable one in the annals of American justice. The national Exoneration Registry announced that 87 people were exonerated last year, a new record. From Brooklyn, The New York Times reported on a wrongful conviction scandal its editors called "a tidal wave that could dwarf other exoneration clusters." In Louisiana, Jerome Morgan walked out of prison after 20 years when a state judge found his murder conviction to be marked by "deception, manipulation, and coercion" on the part of the New Orleans Police Department. And an appellate court in Texas told death row inmate Larry Swearingen that he had no right to DNA test the murder weapon used in his case.

All of these stories, the good and the bad, remind us of the arbitrary and capricious nature of our nation's justice systems. Whether you are executed or not, whether you are wrongly imprisoned or not — it doesn't just depend on the evidence against you. It depends on your race and the race of the victim, on the political predilections of your prosecutor and your judge, on the honor of police detectives, on the accuracy of the eyewitnesses testifying against you, on the skill and competency of your defense attorney, and on the mercy of the governor who makes a judgment on clemency. Oh, and it depends on which state you live in and which county in that state.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News. He has covered the law and justice beat since 1997 and was the 2012 winner of the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award for commentary.