An Irrevocable Error

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

SIXTY YEARS AGO, the state of Georgia executed a woman named Lena Baker. Last week the state Board of Pardons and Paroles announced that it would posthumously pardon her. Officials said the execution was a "grievous error" in a case that cried out for mercy. The sentiment is noble, clearly meaningful to her surviving family, which pushed for it. And it is always important for anyone wielding the tremendous power of government to be prepared to stare error in the face. But the nature of the death penalty makes it impossible even to begin to right the wrong that took place in this case. The error was grievous and irrevocable.

Ms. Baker, an African American woman of 44, was put to death in 1945 for killing her employer, a white man named E.B. Knight. At her trial, she contended that he held her as a kind of sex slave and she shot him in self-defense as he was attacking her with a crowbar. At most, this is manslaughter. But in the segregated South, an all-white, all-male jury convicted her of capital murder in a one-day trial, and she was executed in Georgia's electric chair less than a year later.

It is tempting to believe that these tragedies don't happen anymore, that the death penalty now is more protective of innocent life. Indeed, trial standards are undoubtedly higher; southern states are no longer organized governmental conspiracies against the rights of African Americans; and capital appeals today ensure layers of review totally absent then.

Yet injustice is a resilient pestilence that -- like drug-resistant bacteria -- has myriad ways of defeating the best human attempts to eliminate it. And Americans who believe the death penalty is foolproof are simply kidding themselves. DNA testing has caused many people to be freed from death row, illustrating the fallibility of even modern trials. And recently prosecutors in St. Louis reopened the case of a man executed by the state of Missouri back in 1995 -- no longer being convinced that the state had killed the right person. As long as the death penalty persists, cases like Ms. Baker's -- where recompense is impossible -- are inevitable.

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