News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Death-penalty case shows the fallibility of justice

An Ohio death-penalty case with international implications should cause us to re-evaluate whether the finality of a death penalty should coexist with a criminal justice system that too often falls short.

The international ramifications of the case against Kenneth Richey, who was born and raised in Scotland, are significant. The European Parliament passed a resolution asking that his life be spared. Filmmakers in Great Britain have made documentaries on the case. Pope John Paul II even protested the sentence.

A U.S. appeals court in April ordered a re-trial, but before that time many appellate courts had upheld the verdict. In his 18 years on death row, Mr. Richey has lived through 13 scheduled execution dates. One reprieve came within an hour of his scheduled execution.

Police charged Mr. Richey with murder after his girlfriend's house burned down, killing her 2-year-old daughter. Mr. Richey's repeated efforts to save the girl from the fire ended only when firemen restrained him.

From the seeds of tragedy came a comedy of errors. After examining the home, a fireman decided it was arson. He also told the landlord he could clean the building. For two days, the carpet that was thought to have been doused with an accelerant sat in a garbage dump. It then sat in a sheriff's parking lot for three weeks. The prosecution's only expert, using a test unknown to his peers, said he found traces of paint thinner on the carpet.

Easy case for the defense attorney, right? Not for this one. The lawyer did not challenge the expert's conclusions. He hired an engineer whose total arson expertise came from four days of training. On cross-examination, the defense expert did not contest the other expert's strained conclusions.

No witnesses saw Mr. Richey start the fire. Two witnesses said they heard him threaten his girlfriend, but they later recanted. With this evidence, the jury imposed the death penalty.

The trial was in Ohio, but it could have happened anywhere. Given a competent judge and jury, qualified experts and competent counsel, the U.S. justice system, though imperfect, is as good as any in the world. Start deleting those givens, however, and an imperfect system becomes an arbitrary one.

Many defendants deserve the death penalty. The question is whether our criminal justice system can decide which ones.

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