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Experts joust over capital punishment

Graduate student group sponsors week of forums on legal ethics

A panel of experts played a game of verbal tug of war at the UNM School of Law Wednesday as they discussed the ethics of capital punishment.

Professor Robert Schwartz served as the moderator of the four-person panel discussion. Schwartz said the group offered two opposing views on the death penalty - those who believe it should never be applied and those who believe it should be applied only under particular circumstances.

Schwartz urged the crowd of more than 60 people, consisting mostly of law students and faculty, to open their minds to both perspectives and said the discussion was not meant to change their opinion but to inform them.

Dana Hernandez, a probation and parole officer and former victims' advocate, and Randall Harris, who is serving his fourth term as district attorney for the 9th Judicial District, argued for the death penalty. Richard Winterbottom, an assistant federal public defender, and Dr. Steven Spencer, a physician and a consultant for prison and jail health care systems, argued against it.

Each of the four panelists was given 10 minutes to summarize the reasons supporting their views before formal discussion began.

"In rare cases, the death penalty is the only appropriate punishment," Harris said as he pointed to photos of an elderly man who had been shot twice in the chest and once in the face. "DAs are not a bunch of bloodthirsty prosecutors. It's a difficult decision to make to seek the death penalty."

Hernandez, who served in Roswell as a victim's advocate for five years, said it is common for people who oppose the death penalty to change their minds when one of their own family members becomes the victim of a crime.

"Would I want the death penalty imposed if one of my family members were killed? Yes, I would," Hernandez said. "There's no rehabilitation program that will change people who are willing to kill someone. There are some crimes that are so egregious that you forfeit your right to live."

Winterbottom argued that the death penalty is unethical because of the potential for error in putting innocent people to death.

"If we stick a needle in someone's arm and fill him full of poison and later find we made a mistake, we can never take that back," Winterbottom said.

He added that killing a few innocent people to get most of the guilty is unethical.

"We've got to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people," Winterbottom said.

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He said what victims really want is not to see criminals put to death, but to have the opportunity to get an answer to the question "Why did you do this to me?"

Winterbottom added that the use of the death penalty is racially biased, with blacks more typically sentenced to death. He also said that that the death penalty is not an effective crime deterrent.

Spencer said the death penalty reinforces a primitive lust for vengeance.

"Revenge is all that the death penalty is about," Spencer said. "Legitimizing killing by the state but not by civilians still condones murder. Killing them retards our country's progress toward peace."

The panel discussion marked the third day of Ethics Week, sponsored by the Phi Delta Phi, a graduate student group dedicated to perseving ethics in the legal field.

Today Judge James A. Parker will discuss ethical issues faced by a federal district court judge, and the series will conclude Friday with a presentation by Charles Daniels about the ethical problems he recently faced in a criminal defense case in Puerto Rico.


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