Croker Sack

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." — Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Another Slant on Capital Punishment

What comes over reporters who slant the information in their articles? Do they even realize it when they do it?

Here's an article that caught my attention because of the slanted summary on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's web page. (The summary stated that the Supreme Court "approved capital punishment in 1976," but of course the court was merely deciding whether a law enacted by a legislature was constitutional -- which isn't quite the same as approving capital punishment. Whoever wrote that summary seems not to recognize the distinction between the legislative and judicial powers.)

Way down near the end of what is an otherwise pretty good article is this paragraph:

Since 1973, 122 prisoners have been freed from death row. The vast majority of those cases came during the last 15 years, since the use of DNA evidence became widespread. While there is no official proof an innocent person has been executed, opponents of the death penalty say the number of prisoners whose convictions have been reversed should fuel skepticism.

The implication in its second sentence is that DNA evidence had proven the innocence of a large number of people on death row during the last 15 years, but there aren't any numbers given other than the total freed since 1973 -- which would include those freed for reasons other than the merits of their cases. (Also curious is the choice of 1973 as the starting point, since the article had already noted that 1976 was the year in which the Supreme Court found a state's capital punishment law to be constitutional.)

So, I looked elsewhere to see what is claimed as the total. In an article published April 8, 2005, this statement of the total was made:

The Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports that 13 other death-row inmates have also been exonerated with the help of DNA evidence.

That would indicate a total of 14 convictions which are known to have been set aside because of DNA analysis. (The article was prompted by one case, thus the reference to "13 other" cases.)

Out of 122 cases, 14 people were freed from death row because of DNA testing -- not quite what was implied in the paragraph quoted above.

It's aggravating to see such things in the news media, especially when the topic is as serious as capital punishment. The article had already done a good job of describing the problem involved in ending a person's life without being absolutely certain the criminal conviction was correctly determined. Why mess it up with a misleading paragraph that indicated a truly large number of cases had been set aside because DNA had proven the person's innocence?

Isn't 14 a big enough number to hammer the point home?


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