You might have missed this little kernel of news, in the midst of the upset elimination on Dancing With the Stars and George Zimmerman’s broken nose and whatnot, but it turns out AMERICA REALLY DOES EXECUTE INNOCENT PEOPLE!! In this case, a man from Texas (where else?) was convicted and executed because… he looked like the killer! You’d think that even your basic Scooby Doo-level investigation would have established such a mix-up, right? Certainly nothing beyond our vaunted U.S. legal system’s capacities, right? Especially when the actual killer had confessed on multiple occasions to the crime. You’d think.
This case of mistaken identity is so stupefyingly… stupid that it will break your heart. But if you’re tempted to think it was a one-off crazy thing you’d see on a soap opera, think again. I’m guessing this is just the tip of the iceberg where our messed up legal system is concerned. I know, I know: this is AMERICA. It’s the best-imaginable legal system in the universe and we all get so weepy and tingly just thinking about its sweep and majesty and la di da. Look at how nicely we ended up protecting Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s wounded dignity when it looked like that low-class lying immigrant lady was going to, um, nail him. So what if we kill a few ‘retards?’ Torture a few frenemies or whatever. Shut up with the complaining!
Sure, we’re not perfect — we’ve got those embarrassing death penalty partners, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, in the international rankings. And don’t forget our incarceration rate is similar to the Soviet GULAG system (now there’s something for the record books!), and we have such awesomely inhumane but ‘appropriate’ prison conditions for life-threatening crimes like, you know, check-kiting. And myriad other Only-in-America stuff, like punishing the person who DIDN’T pull the trigger at the robbery, and might not even have known there was going to BE a gun or a robbery, just exactly the same amount (or more!) as the actual murderer. Or — I’m sorry, I can’t stop myself — imprisoning a 17 year-old boy for 20 years for having sex with his 15 year-old girlfriend because… we can! We’re Americans! And we’re just really, really into our vengeful wild west nostalgia trip and our nifty American exceptionalism. International human rights expert, Jackie Bhabha, put it to me perfectly a few months ago when she said, “I’m so struck by what an unnecessarily cruel judicial system you have here.” If you want to read more about, “commonplace aspects of the American justice system that are virtually unique in the world,” check out the NY Times series here.
In closing, I’ll quote the crapulous Justice Scalia. Please note his disingenuous confidence in said legal system and the tricky way he places the onus of establishing innocence squarely on the anti-death penalty lobby:
It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.
Capital cases are given especially close scrutiny at every level, (emphasis mine) which is why in most cases many years elapse before the sentence is executed. And of course capital cases receive special attention in the application of executive clemency.