Death Penalty Creates Challenges

How does one opposed to the death penalty teach a law class on the subject and yet help write three books on the subject?
Ask Professor Lynn Entezeroth, University of Tulsa College of Law.
She is doing it.
The goal is to raise awareness in the legal community and law students about legal and moral issues involved and the finality of a death sentence.
Entezeroth and University of Oklahoma College of Law Professor Randall Coyne have coauthored three editions of Capital Punishment and the Judicial Process. A fourth edition is being written with a release date set for publication in 2011.
The book has become a guideline dealing the death penalty and difficulties surrounding the issue for attorneys, she said. Questions must be met and dealt with head-on regardless of one’s personal feelings.
Entezeroth, who began her legal career as a corporate attorney in Washington, D.C., admits that she always was fascinated by criminal law.
But it was only after she moved to Oklahoma and worked as an attorney with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System that she had the opportunity to practice in that field. While there and dealing with serious criminal cases, she could only witness the death penalty cases from the outside.
It was only after she joined Criminal Appellate Court Judge Charles Chapel that she had the opportunity work on death penalty cases.
There were so many complicated areas involved in each case, Entezeroth said. Research was necessary to substantiate each procedural process and deal with moral and legal issues.
That work provided still another opportunity to see how cases proceeded through state and federal courts.
Teaching the death penalty course each spring at TU, Entezeroth said her first objective is to focus on the civil responsibility that is involved.
Personal feelings about the issue are not allowed in the Death Penalty class that Entezeroth teaches.
Students come with specific ideas, but must be ready to argue both sides of the question. It includes arguments on the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. There are difficult, tough moral and legal issues to be discussed and opinions may or may not be changed as a result.
Students talk about the law, but are not allowed to attack another for their viewpoint.
Those opposed are assigned to consider why the penalty was assessed, how horrific the crime of murder is and how a person must deal with it.
Those supporting the death penalty are assigned to study the moral and legal issues surrounding capital punishment. They also must review how the sentence was applied.
Students are challenged to think and they are passionate about their stand, Entezeroth said. Some have left the classroom to become public defenders or prosecutors after earning their law degree.
However, Entezeroth could not say whether or not that particular class influenced a career path.
‘‘My thoughts are that if you have the capital punishment law, then you need to make certain that it is carried out fairly, justly and the guilty person is executed,’’ she said. ‘‘My hope is that students, when they become lawyers, will think about the implications of the death penalty when they have their own practice.’’
Another factor slowing executions is the fear that an innocent person might be killed, she said.
During the last 10 years many people have been freed because DNA and forensic science proved they were innocent.
This has troubled the justices on the Supreme Court and citizens.
Public opinion polls show that people support this type of research to free the innocent. There has been more than 100 people released, including some in Oklahoma who have been released because of this research.
A fear remains that someone who is innocent received the death sentence that actually has been carried out, Entezeroth said.
Some states, New Mexico and New Jersey, now prohibit the death sentence and other legislatures are considering similar action.
Rules are constantly changing on the death penalty.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that executing someone who is mentally retarded is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The court held these individuals did not have a full mental capacity to understand their crime nor would they understand why they were being executed, in short, it was not a deterrent.
That ruling followed a 1986 ruling that when someone was deemed insane at the time of their execution that they also would not understand the reason for the punishment, that they were less culpable and the death penalty was excessive. It made no difference as to whether or not the person was sane when the crime was committed.
Despite those rulings, debate is ongoing about people with schizophrenia and others affected by mental health issues should face the death penalty, Entezeroth said. The American Bar Association is looking at that issue and whether or not the Eighth Amendment is being violated. That question remains unanswered at this time.
It will take action by state legislatures to determine how some who qualify in the mentally ill category are handled and whether or not they will be exempt from the death penalty.
One or two states have provided exemptions for the mentally ill and other states are looking at the penalty, she said.
The Supreme Court looks at laws states are enacting as they make decisions, Entezeroth said.
‘‘My best guess is the court will wait until they see what states are doing before they make a ruling on the death penalty,’’ she said. Indiana has banned the death penalty executing the severely mentally ill. The American Bar Association is coming out with the results of a recent study.
There has not been any movement in Oklahoma on the mentally ill facing execution, Entezeroth said. Some people think the court should step in and make a ruling on the death penalty, but that raises the fear the court has overstepped its bounds.
The Supreme Court has stepped in and made a ruling that changed the legal makeup of the land.
Entezeroth pointed to the landmark case Brown vs Board of Education that set aside the separate but equal doctrine that ended segregated schools.
There was a time when the death penalty was stopped by the Supreme Court.
During the 1950s and ’60s executions had dropped off, then stopped, Entezeroth said. While there were many people on death row, the court set the penalty aside, ruling that prisoners faced cruel and unusual punishment while awaiting their fate.
States reworked their laws and got around the court’s ruling, she said. Changes included informing the jury of mitigating factors and giving juries latitude in assessing penalties.
In the future, states might consider ending the death penalty to save money, Entezeroth said. It is extremely expensive to go through the appeals process.
The State of Maryland spent $186 million — more than $3.7 million each — to execute five people.
California has a large death row population, but because of that state’s financial difficulties, one might wonder if these people will ever be executed, she said.
Costs begin with the trials when a person is found guilty of the crime qualifying for the death penalty. Then comes the appeals when every case is examined in detail to make certain the process has been followed.
Sometimes during the appeals process, the accused is found to be innocent.
The state bears the cost that can be in the millions of dollars for appeals regardless of the outcome.
Carrying out the death sentence is the final step for a person and there is no appeal.

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