States Shouldn’t Kill People, Even With Jury Unanimity

The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Ellis Henican during a Newsweek debate about jury unanimity in cases involving the death penalty. You can listen to the podcast here:

I am for anything that makes it harder for the state to kill people, and honestly, I think this is something that people left and right ought to be able to agree on. So many of my conservative friends are so suspicious about state action of any kind, whether it’s protecting people from deadly diseases as they don’t want to stay involved in that. And my goodness, this is the easiest case. Of all the things the government should not be doing, it’s killing people because we know how many mistakes get made. We know how imperfect our justice system is. We know, frankly, how effective life in prison without parole is. It gives the, the victims and their families all the satisfaction they need. And killing people debases us as a society. Thankfully, most states have backed away from it, and even a lot of very conservative states have decided it’s not the business they want to be in. Whatever boundaries you can put, whatever difficulties you can make, I’m for all of them.

DOJ reports Louisiana Dept of Corrections
A prisoner walks through a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm” is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections. In inset, the seal of the Department of Justice.
Giles Clarke/Getty; Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

I’ve visited several maximum-security Florida prisons in my journalism career, and let me tell you, there isn’t anything cushy about them. Nobody is suggesting that we ought to go lite on these horrible crimes. Some people need to be in prison. Some people do horrible things and cannot be allowed to be in society. Society needs to be protected and messages need to be sent to other bad guys. They’re all kind of reasons for horrible crimes to be punished with horrible penalties, but I’m stopping this side of killing people. People ought to come to the jury with a variety of different moral views about this, and the jury’s supposed to represent society. We have tremendous disagreement on issue. Why on earth would you only have death penalty supporters on the jury? Why shouldn’t people who have a strong moral view in the opposite direction be represented? We wouldn’t put it to the jury if we didn’t want people to bring their common-sense moral views to this question. Of course, you have to have a diversity of people on a jury.

Ellis Henican is a New York Times-bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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