When Good Intentions Go Terribly Wrong

Mark Osler, professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota, wrote a compelling opinion editorial for CNN today on the deep emotional commitment of prosecutors to see a death sentence through even when there is untested DNA evidence and serious doubts about a defendant’s guilt, as in the case of Hank Skinner in Texas.

As a former federal prosecutor, such a commitment is not surprising to Osler, but it is quite concerning. He points out that although prosecutors go into the profession with good intentions of helping to keep dangerous people out of our communities, the political pressure and emotional overcommittment to win convictions can also prove to be a danger to our communities. When a prosecutor has chosen the death penalty path, there seems to be no looking back, no room for examining new information or evidence that could lead to a needed change of course. The result of such overzealousness is that potentially innocent people are being put to death in our name.

Osler also points out that being so hell-bent on proceeding with executions in the face of doubt is ironically not very in line with Texas’ religious-political climate. After all, he writes, “the very center of the Christian gospels themselves contain a dramatic warning against the dangers of overcommitted prosecutors.” Osler wrote a book on the subject entitled Jesus on Death Row, which challenges the death penalty based on the experience of Jesus as a criminal defendant. This has been turned into a play and will be performed at St. Henry’s Catholic Church in Nashville and at Carson Newman College in Jefferson City, TN, in the spring. More information on these events will be forthcoming.

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