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The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (2001)

So the FBI blew it? Should we have expected more?

Though we've long known that "the inevitability of human error," as Justice Blackmun put it, portends disaster for a system that deals in death, today's news unmasks America's purveyors of capital punishment as what they are: The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

Only recently Joyce Gilchrist, the Oklahoma City Police forensics expert whose shoddy work put thousands in prison and dozens on death row despite her dismissal by two professional organizations, was finally fingered by a suspicious judge and exposed by the FBI, underscoring America's growing disenchantment with the death penalty. Oklahoma's Governor Keating, eager to demonstrate that "the system works," let one of her subjects be killed, then ordered an investigation into Gilchrist's work even as another, Jeffrey Pierce, walked out of an Oklahoma prison a free man after 16 years of being wrongfully confined thanks to her particular brand of expertise.

And now we find that the very FBI that outed Gilchrist, sacred protector of truth, justice and the American Way that it is, has somehow managed to fail to turn over thousands of documents in the most celebrated death case in modern American history, thus necessitating a delay in the killing of Timothy McVeigh, the much-ballyhooed first federal executee in 38 years.

If this level of bungling can happen in the most celebrated death penalty case of our time, imagine the level of injustice, unfairness and inhumanity in this process for the defendant with a $25 per hour court-appointed lawyer facing an expert of Gilchrist's conveniently elastic and prosecution-friendly abilities.

And that's only in the face of error and incompetence.

Sadly, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigative series in 1998, federal prosecutors themselves often show a disturbing willingness to hide information helpful to the defense. In its review of 1,500 misconduct allegations over 10 years, the newspaper found "hundreds of examples of discovery violations in which prosecutors intentionally concealed evidence that might have helped prove a defendant innocent or a witness against him suspect." In hundreds of cases, they said, prosecutors and federal agents "lied, hid evidence, distorted facts, engaged in cover-ups, paid for perjury and set up innocent people in a relentless effort to win indictments, guilty pleas and convictions."

And, of course, "Rarely were these federal officials punished for their misconduct."

The government -- our all-too-human and all-too-fallible government-- should not have the power to kill. And it doesn't need to have it when there is a viable alternative to state-sanctioned killing in Life Without the Possibility of Parole.

Life Without Parole, a sentence that provides severe retribution without perpetuating the myth that state killing reduces private killing, removes murderers from society without the danger of killing those innocent of the crimes for which they were condemned. And contrary to common fears, life without parole means just that: no parole, ever. In California, more than 2500 convicted murderers have been given life without parole since 1978; except for one later determined to be innocent, none has been released.

Taking Attorney General Ashcroft at his word that questions or doubts "cast a permanent cloud over justice," simple decency demands that we slap the hands of the bunglers and super-ambitious and replace the death system with one we can all live with: life without parole.

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