A Challenge to Dennis Prager, Death-Penalty Supporter

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Defending costly executions, he writes that "justice should never be a matter of money." Will he follow that argument where it leads?

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Over at Ricochet, Dennis Prager has an item mocking the California ballot initiative that could end the death penalty in the Golden State, in part because doing so would save a lot of taxpayer money.

Says Prager (emphasis added):

There's a ballot measure (in California they're called propositions) to eliminate the death penalty. The idea behind this measure, Proposition 34, is that death penalty is too expensive and therefore should be abolished. The idea is so morally vapid that it's hard to believe people would take it seriously. Justice should never be a matter of money.  Do supporters of Prop. 34 really mean to suggest that, yes, heinous murderers should be executed, but because it's costly we should allow every murderer to live?

What I wonder is if Prager fully understands the implications of his argument, which I'd urge him to carry to its logical conclusion. If justice should never be a matter of money, will he start using his radio show and columns to insist that the people who perform autopsies be adequately trained and funded? Will he urge legislators to approve funds to remedy the atrocious state of forensic investigation in America, and fund "rivalrous redundancy," so that private labs would check up on the work of state-run forensic teams that often make mistakes? Will he insist on compensating the victims of guys like Steven Hayne -- or at least speak out against state laws that leave some wrongly jailed victims of prosecutorial misconduct without any state compensation at all upon their release? Will he speak up against asset-forfeiture laws that give law-enforcement agencies across the country a financial incentive to victimize innocent people?

After all, justice should never be a matter of money, right? And yet all over America, there are countless areas where additional funding could prevent innocents from being subject to unjust state action. But they are never funded, and more often than not conservatives are the ones standing in the way.  

In 2010, the Innocence Project documented 250 cases in which DNA testing overturned wrongful convictions. As Radley Balko wrote in an item discussing the report and its implications (emphasis added):

Calculating the percentage of innocents now in prison is a tricky and controversial process. The numerator itself is difficult enough to figure out. The certainty of DNA testing means we can be positive the 250 cases listed in the Innocence Project report didn't commit the crimes for which they were convicted, and that number also continues to rise. But there are hundreds of other cases in which convictions have been overturned due to a lack of evidence, recantation of eyewitness testimony, or police or prosecutorial misconduct, but for which there was no DNA evidence to establish definitive guilt or innocence. Those were wrongful convictions in that there wasn't sufficient evidence to establish reasonable doubt, but we can't be sure all the accused were factually innocent.

Most prosecutors fight requests for post-conviction DNA testing. That means the discovery of wrongful convictions is limited by the time and resources available to the Innocence Project and similar legal aid organizations to fight for a test in court. It's notable that in one of the few jurisdictions where the district attorney is actively seeking out wrongful convictions -- Dallas County, Texas -- the county by itself has seen more exonerations than all but a handful of individual states. If prosecutors in other jurisdictions were to follow Dallas D.A. Craig Watkins' lead, that 250 figure would be significantly higher.

So why not fund a program that pays for post-conviction DNA testing in all states, and in all cases where physical evidence that could exonerate an innocent convict is available? The evidence that doing so would free at least one innocent person is so overwhelming that to argue otherwise would be absurd. The real number of innocents exonerated would be much higher. But even if only one innocent were freed, Mr. Prager, should the funds be allocated, or would justice prove too expensive? If only death-penalty supporters were as outraged by flaws in the criminal-justice system as in the prospect of executions halting, the case for halting executions would be much weaker than it is.

At present, the case is strong.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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