The Controversy over the Death Penalty

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The Controversy over the Death Penalty HE STOOD AT THE THRESHOLD OF THE EXECUTION chamber in Huntsville, Texas,18 minutes from death by lethal injection, when official word finally came that the needle wouldn't be needed that day The rumors of a 30day reprieve were true. Ricky McGinn, a 43-year-old mechanic found guilty of raping and killing his 12-yearold stepdaughter, will get his chance to prove his innocence with advanced DNA testing that hadn't been available at the time of his 1994 conviction. The double cheeseburger, french fries and Dr Pepper he requested for dinner last Thursday night won't be his last meal after all. Another galvanizing moment in the long-running debate over capital punishment: last week Gov. George W. Bush granted his first stay of execution in five years in office not because of deep doubts about McGinn's guilt; it was hard to find anyone outside McGinn's family willing to bet he was truly innocent. The doubts that concerned Bush were the ones spreading across the country about the fairness of a system with life-and-death stakes. "These death-penalty cases stir emotions; Bush told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive interview about the decision. Imagine the emotions that would have been stirred had McGinn been executed, then proved innocent after death by DNA. So, Bush figured, why take the gamble? "Whether McGinn is guilty or innocent, this case has helped establish that all inmates eligible for DNA testing should get it," says Barry Scheck, the noted DNA legal expert and coauthor of "Actual Innocence." "It's just common sense and decency." Even as Bush made the decent decision, the McGinn case illustrated why capital punishment in Texas is in the cross hairs this political season. For star... ... middle of paper ... ... life without parole. The difference is in the upfront prosecution costs, which are at least four times greater than in cases where death is not sought. California spends an extra $90 million on its capital cases beyond the normal costs of the system. Even subtracting pro bono defense, the system is no bargain for taxpayers. Whether you're for or against the death penalty, it's hard to argue that it doesn't need a fresh look. From America's earliest days, when Benjamin Franklin helped develop the notion of degrees of culpability for murder, this country has been willing to reassess its assumptions about justice. If we're going to keep the death penalty, the public seems to be saying, let's be damn sure we're doing it right. DNA testing will help. So will other fines. But if, over time, we can't do it right, then we must ask ourselves if it's worth doing at all.
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