UP   |  May 11, 2013

Weighing the death penalty in three major cases

The death penalty has been discussed in three major cases that are dominating national headlines. The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington, Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate ever to be exonerated by DNA evidence, Christina Swarns from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and former Democratic congressman Patrick Murphy join host Steve Kornacki for a discussion on contemporary death penalty politics.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> good morning from new york i'm steve kornacki. a string of attacks has killed 17 people and left many wounded in pakistan today. a task force in newtown, connecticut voted unanimously last night to raise the sandy hook elementary school and to build a new one. but right now i'm joined by the u.s. correspondent for the guardian newspaper , the first death row inmate ever to be exonerated by dna evidence , the director of the criminal justice practice at the naacp defense and education fund and msnbc contributor patrick murphy , a former democratic congressman from pennsylvania. this week we saw three separate sensational criminal cases cap captivate the nation. and a fourth going unnoticed. what the three big ones have in common. in cleveland on thursday ariel castro was accused of imprisoning three young women for the last decade of kidnapping them, holding them against their will and raping them. the chorgs may grow worst as cuyahoga county prosecutor indicated after castro 's arraignment.

>> based on the facts i fully intend to seek charges for each and every act of sexual violence, rape, each day of kidnapping, every felonous assault, all his attempted murders and each act of aggravated murder he committed by terminating pregnancies.

>> that part about terminating pregnancies by force is key since it could make castro eligible for capital punishment .

>> my office of the county prosecutor will also engage in a formal process in which we evaluate already to seek charges eligible for the death penalty . the law of ohio calls for death penalty for the most depraved acts.

>> in massachusetts federal prosecutors are awaiting word from the obama justice department on whether they should seek to put accused boston marathon bomber to death, dzhokhar tsarnaev if he's convicted. public opinion is on the side of executing tsarnaev if convicted. 70% support for that aunt poll last week. strong political pressure is being exerted as well.

>> the federal law allows the death penalty . this is the kind of case it should be applied to. the only other time has been used on timothy mcveigh . given the facts i've seen it would be appropriate to use the death pen fault in this case and i hope they would apply it in federal court .

>> then there's jodi arias convicted on wednesday of killing her ex-boyfriend her case gripped much of the nation with revelations that arias had stabbed her victims dozens of time, slit his throat, shot him in the head and claimed he was killed by an intruder. jury in case will decide next week whether she should be executed. each one of these cases in cleveland , boston and phoenix explain perfectly why there's broad support for the idea of capital punishment . since the supreme court affirmed the power of states to kill back in 1976 support for the death penalty has polled over 60%. the basic appeal of capital punishment is as old as the book of exodus built not as popular today as it was a generation ago. the fear that drove public opinion back then is rivalled by another emotion doubt. which brings us to the case that should have been a big deal this week. doubt is the reason that the mississippi state supreme court intervened in the last minute on tuesday to stop the execution of willie jerome manning convicted 20 years ago of killing two college students. the state came after the fbi and justice department informed mississippi officials a report from fbi examiners that was critical in winning his conviction including statements that exceeded the limits of science. manning may be guilty and may not be and there are a lot of cases like his. two years ago state of georgia put to death troy anthony davis even though most witnesses who testified against him recanted and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, there was strong evidence of police mishandling of the case. there's cases of innocent people being sent to death row . nearly 15 years since anthony porter came within 50 hours of being executed in illinois after being exonerated and freed at the last moment. that story shook the state's governor. he asked his wife how does that happen? a few years later, ryan commuted every death sentence in the state to life in prison and nearly a decade after that illinois out lawed capital punishment all together. last year connecticut followed and last week it was maryland . so, let's pick it up on maryland and kirk you're from maryland . and you have the experience we were just talking about, a totally complete lui innocent person who was sent to death row who was exonerated. you have the governor of maryland , martin o'malley a democrat, this was his second attempt to outlaw the death penalty . the first one failed. he pushed forward with it. public opinion not really on his side to believe the polls and i guess what i think of when i look at this, imagine if this story we're talking about in cleveland where there's so much outrage and the idea of having the death penalty for ariel castro is very, i think it's very popular to people. if that played out or something like that played out in baltimore now in the fares of martin o'malley outlawing capital punishment what's the message to voters who look at a case like castro and say we want the ultimate punishment for this. what's the message then to say no?

>> i have to tell you there's been 142 individuals in the united states that have been exonerated from death row . i think we had 300 plus dna exonerations in the united states . we have a problem. the policy has failed us. by a large part. i would tell any governor that this is the time we have to think. and when crimes of this nature happens it's a real heady thing and people are going to make choices. but we need not make too hastily a choice. i tell people you cannot -- you know we're in a place, you talk about the polls and everything like that. you cannot climb over an innocent man to kill the guilty.

>> we should say, i guess, the story in maryland probably isn't finished yet either because supporters of capital punishment want to have a referendum on the ballot, i guess next year and like i'm saying you have the political will of the governor right now on the side of outlawing it but the popular will to believe all the polls we see, capital punishment still polls at 60% plus.

>> that's their right to have this referendum you're talking about. honestly, the people have already spoken. i mean the senators, it was 27-20 vote out of the senate and 82-55 at the maryland house. we cannot, you know, say the people have spoken. they had elected these officials, and, of course, they have this right for the referendum, but the people have said what they want.

>> what strikes me is that there's a wind of change coming across america but it's coming across the north. and increasingly death row is shrinking down into the deep south . that's going to be problematic going forward because increasingly two countries within one. what we saw in mississippi with this case, four hours before he's due to be executed, eventual there was a stay. on the back of the fbi and department of justice making multiple pleas, admitting that they got it all wrong. it really went to the wire. and the fact that mississippi supreme court just a few days before his execution ruled that there should not be dna testing in this case. i i think it was fairly jaw dropping. what's happening in the south you have a judiciary willing to go ahead with executions and in the north a political class that's unwilling to go ahead with it.

>> it's as if astronauting to look at it. we put a map up of the states that out lawed it. i guess what i wonder is, we have the case in mississippi this week where there's doubt. we have the case in georgia that, the troy davis case where there's clearly doubt. but then what happens in situations where there really isn't doubt? you know, i think of people looking at dzhokhar tsarnaev in boston . most people look at that and say there isn't much doubt here, what this guy did you couldn't do anything worse than what this guy did and how is death not the appropriate punishment for that, for killing others?

>> you know, i think in those cases we have to be careful. i would bet that kirk would say at the time he was prosecuted and i bet the 125 other people on death row would say at the time they were prosecuted, the prosecutors, the public at large were saying this is a very clear cut case of guilt, this is a person that's definitely, absolutely unquestionably guilty. in the excitement and anxiety and upset of what are unquestionably brutal terrible crimes, mistakes are made and we know that. there's no question about that. not only are people convicted that are innocent, you see prosecutorial misconduct, you see mistakes made by the police department , you see constitutional error over and over again in capital cases in the united states . certainly these are terrible crimes that call for punishment but i think what we have learned is because there is so much error when you're talking about the death penalty , it's something different and you have to be more careful and in my view we shouldn't have the death penalty .

>> i'm a person who bheeelieves the death penalty can be a deterrent and it should be. that's why we need reform. i understand what happened in maryland last week. think four years ago we had the d.c. sniper who killed ten people, who had the whole region in lockdown and he was put to death four years ago in 2009 . in cases like that where it's very clear and convincing there's forensic evidence and in these type of cases when i argue for reform because i do believe it can be a detriment we need to make at any time highest priority, a case that has national or statewide significance not just a case where it's sensational like jodi arias or what's going on elsewhere but a case where it had national significance. we have to move forward with the death penalty .

>> ultimately this is still a political question and we see in maryland it could be very obviously a political question if this is on the ballot but you also have elected officials who are answering to a public and when there are cases like the sniper or cases like boston , those elected officials are taking into account, you know, that public ground swell for we really want these people to pay. i want to ask -- we have patrick here. i want to ask how you balance what kristina raise with that public desire for