SID SALTER: Renewing state’s death penalty debate no simple matter

By Sid Salter

With Mississippi headed toward at least three executions among the state’s death row prison population this year, the debate has renewed over the propriety, morality and fairness of the ultimate punishment for heinous crimes in the states.
The debate divides people of faith with moral objections to the imposition of the death penalty and the families of crime victims who continue to cry out for what they believe to be justice for their slain loved ones. Those who see this interminable debate as a simple one ignore many crucial factors – some legal, some political and some moral.
In protesting the state’s continued imposition of the death penalty for the most heinous crimes, the inmates’ families, death penalty opponents and human rights organizations see a Mississippi criminal justice system plagued by police and judicial error, race and class discrimination and moral objections to the death penalty.
Those opponents see a state that has been slow to fund competent modern death investigation techniques, mandate and fund DNA testing and evidence storage and provide adequate funding for post-conviction appeals and indigent defense at trial.
Yet the families of victims of violent crime see an appeals system mired in costly, never-ending appeals in the state and federal courts that can place as many as 30 years between the commission of a murder and the imposition of the execution mandated by the state’s current laws as punishment.
I understand the debate from both perspectives. I’ve watched men put to death by the state – both in the gas chamber and by lethal injection. It’s not a game.
The state of Mississippi is slated on May 10 to execute Benny Joe Stevens, 52, who was sentenced to death in 1999 for killing his ex-wife and her husband, his 11-year-old son and his son’s 10-year-old friend in Marion County.
A May 17 execution date has been set for Rodney Gray, 38, who was sentenced to death in 1996 for the 1994 rape and murder of 79-year-old Grace Blackwell of Louin. Blackwell, who had last been seen withdrawing a large amount of money from her bank, was found shot multiple times in Newton County. Investigators determined that Blackwell had been killed by a shotgun blast to the mouth.
Attorney General Jim Hood had requested an April 20 execution date for Robert Simon Jr., who was sentenced to death for the killings of three members of a Quitman County family, but his attorneys say a fall has rendered him incompetent for execution.
Simon was sentenced in 1990 for the Feb. 2, 1990 murders of Carl and Bobbie Joe Parker, and their children, Charlotte and Gregory Parker. The killings occurred a few hours after the family had returned to their rural Quitman County home from church services. The victims variously had been sexually assaulted, tortured and burned.
Mississippi is finally taking steps in the right direction toward modernizing death investigations, providing post-conviction appeal support, improving indigent defense and implementing a modern DNA testing and storage system. But the state still has work to do to make the criminal justice system more accountable in terms of utilizing the death penalty.
The fact is that it’s election year in Mississippi. The majority of Mississippians favor the death penalty and no amount of protests will change that reality. Politicians will maintain the death penalty for no other reason than that. Executions will continue.
Where the protesters might do some good is trying to force the Legislature to pay for leveling the playing field between poor or indigent defendants and those with the means to pay for a credible defense – and to pay for medical examiners, crime lab technicians, DNA analysts and other professionals to help ensure that Mississippi doesn’t continue to run the very real risk – as we do now – of executing the innocent.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.