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Discussing the morality of capital punishment

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Few debates are more emotional than a discussion on the morality of capital punishment. Yet the topic is also one that's been subject to marked shifts in public opinion in recent decades. In the 1970s, use of the death penalty in the US seemed on its way out, only to swing sharply back into favor in the 1980s and '90s.

But now, segments of public opinion are undergoing another change, due in part to revelations about innocent defendants on death row.

It was the examination of this phenomenon - the assignment of death sentences to those innocent of the crimes of which they are accused - that caused two writers whose careers began in criminal justice to rethink their own views about the death penalty.

Author Scott Turow worked as a federal prosecutor before writing his first bestselling novel and representing death penalty inmates on appeal.

In his most recent legal assignment, he served on a commission appointed by the governor of Illinois to examine the state's death penalty law.

He reflects on the experience in his new book, "Ultimate Punishment" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Mark Fuhrman, best known as a detective in the O.J. Simpson case, focused on Oklahoma's capital punishment record in "Death and Justice" (William Morrow).

Excerpts of the Monitor's interviews with each author follow.

Q: Even while representing death-row defendants, you wrote that you were agnostic on the death penalty? What did you mean?

ST: I could never make up my mind. I was against it. I was for it. Finally, I decided I didn't know what to think.

Q: How did your work on the Illinois governor's commission change your view on capital punishment?

ST: It allowed me to look at the system as a whole instead of focusing on individual cases. Instead of asking whether the death penalty is just in this case or that case, I had to ask whether the system could administer the death penalty in a way that was fair, just, and accurate. Looking at the entire system was a revelation.

I learned I was looking at the wrong question. The real question is, 'Can you construct a death penalty that only reaches the right cases without bringing in the wrong cases - the cases where people are innocent or undeserving?


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