Justice for all – who can afford it
Two recent news stories have strengthened my conviction that we must repeal capital punishment in Delaware.
In January, prosecutors opened a sealed envelope from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Wilmington during a drug prosecution case in Kent County and discovered Oxycontin pills had been replaced with blood pressure medicine. Since then, over 60 cases of tainted evidence have been discovered, and there are thousands of drug samples from 2010 to the present yet to be tested.
I have heard over and over again that we don’t execute innocent people in Delaware. How can anyone say that with certainty -- especially in light of the ongoing investigation of massive contamination of evidence in the Medical Examiner’s office? Judges and prosecutors are humans, subject to the same human frailties we all possess. We all make mistakes.
I have also heard the argument that we have a legal system that protects the defendant. Sadly I think the reality is we have a legal system that protects the defendants who can afford to pay for their own defense.
In June 2008, a state prosecutor offered Robert Richards IV a plea to a single count of fourth-degree rape of his three-year-old daughter, which carries no mandatory time. Richards accepted, admitting in court that he abused his child. Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden, at the recommendation of the prosecution, suspended an eight-year prison sentence and sentenced Richards to a treatment program for sex offenders.
Richards’ attorney commented “It was more than reasonable, an enlightened plea offer." As a multi-millionaire, Richards could afford to hire a private attorney to defend him. Even though I disagree with the decision of Judge Jan Jurden, who has been described as “an outstanding jurist” by Delaware’s Attorney General and a number of lawyers and their professional organizations, I acknowledge Robert Richards’ right to use his financial resources to engage a lawyer or legal team to get him the best deal possible.
But the vast majority of capital defendants don’t have Robert Richards’ money. An article in the National Law Journal concluded that capital trials are "more like a random flip of the coin than a delicate balancing of scales," because the defense attorney is "too often . . . ill-trained, unprepared [and] grossly underpaid."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has observed that "People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty... I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.”
Study after study has shown that whether or not a defendant will be sentenced to death depends more on the quality of his legal team than any other factor.
Until we can change the sad reality that a person’s wealth determines the quality of his or her defense, and until we can say humans never make mistakes, the state has no right to execute a human being.
Progressive Democrats of Sussex County