Last week, my colleague Martin F. Murphy and I went over to WBZ-Radio to appear on Dan Rea’s Nightside. In case you don’t know, Dan is a lawyer and talk show host who understands legal issues as well as any journalist we know.
So when he invited us on to discuss the Boston Bar Association’s recently announced opposition to the death penalty in federal cases, we chose to take this opportunity for a very public discussion of why we believe that even in the most heinous of crimes, life-in-prison makes more sense than capital punishment. For the record, the BBA has opposed the death penalty in state cases for some 40 years.
We arrived at 10 p.m., ready to be interviewed by Dan for one hour, perhaps questioned by a handful of callers from up and down the East Coast. We were absolutely confident that Dan had done his homework, because he enjoys a reputation for always being well prepared.
We could tell Dan had read our recently published study documenting the fact that the death penalty has far too high a potential for the execution of innocent people, that capital punishment has a disproportionate impact on members of racial and ethnic minorities, and that pursuing the death penalty is an inordinately expensive gesture, inconsistent with the sensible allocation of resources in a criminal justice system already laboring under great financial strain.
Dan is the consummate gentleman. He treats his guests with absolutely courtesy, and lets them have their say – regardless of whether he shares their views. And he demands the same of his callers, warning those struggling to “dial it back” that he will use his cut button if they cross the line.
At the same time, Dan put Marty and me on the hot seat, asking some very pointed questions – in turn triggering tough questions from callers. For example, he asked us about cases in which murder victims were young children, entire families were killed with extreme cruelty and atrocity, and cases in which the murderer violated an oath to protect his country. He also asked us about cases in which the accused has admitted to his heinous acts.
Arguing for particular principles is always a challenge. Marty and I did our best to highlight capital punishment’s systemic flaws – even when the facts of particular cases do not appear to raise questions about innocence or racial discrimination, or when a crime in the public spotlight is so outrageous that focus on issues like cost or delay may seem out of place given the suffering of victims and their families.
Judging by the flashing lights on Dan’s phone, it’s clear that the death penalty remains an emotionally charged issue. By the time 11 p.m. rolled around, our host asked if we wouldn’t mind staying for another hour to accommodate more callers.
We worked hard to convey the message that we absolutely understand the pain involved in the murder of a loved one, and that those convicted of heinous crimes are dangerous people needing to be confined in maximum security prisons. At the same time, we wanted to leave Dan’s listeners with the message that an injustice for one person is an injustice for all.
We left the studio at midnight, thanking Dan for giving us the opportunity to exchange views and defend our ideas to people with a completely different take on the issue. If you would like to listen to the broadcast, click here.