By Mike Thompson, Contributing Writer
On the day before Thanksgiving, Barack Obama carried out a long-time presidential tradition on the White House lawn when he "pardoned" two turkeys from the holiday dinner death penalty.
There were plenty of jokes to go around, as always, but I wasn't laughing.
It's not that I'm a vegetarian (although I respect those who are), or that I don't have a sense of humor.
My question, going back for many years under past presidents, is: How can we joke about exonerating turkeys while the death penalty continues for human beings?
I oppose the death penalty even for murderers who are unquestionably guilty, as readers should see via my sensitivity on the turkey pardons. Still, I realize most folks don't feel the same way. Some view capital punishment as a basic measure of justice, and some see the death penalty as a measure to deter others from committing homicide.
Okay, consider this: What if someone assigned to the gallows by a judge or a jury is later discovered to be innocent? It’s discovered more often nowadays with the modern gift of DNA evidence retrieval.
Some 141 U.S. prisoners on death row have been exonerated and freed since the late 20th century, reports the Death Penalty Information Center. Not merely pardoned, but exonerated. And those are only the cases in which advocates have launched investigations. Who knows how many were overlooked?
Considering all of the racial injustices and disparities that exist in the system, the following breakdown of the 141 should come as no surprise: 71 black, 56 white, 12 Latino, 2 "other."
Obama has said a crime should be terribly egregious to merit capital punishment, such as a mass murder or the killing of children. I’m dismayed he has done nothing federally to pursue reform. In the Illinois legislature, where crime and punishment are far bigger items than at the federal level, Obama in fact led the way to some major changes, such as videotaping police interviews and prisoner confessions, and boosting public defender representation. His leverage was bolstered when a Northwestern University professor and his students during the 1990s probed convictions and discovered several that were wrongful, leading Illinois to repeal its death penalty.
Illinois thus joined the ranks of 15 states that bar capital punishment, among which Michigan gratefully is a member. But then we have the killing mills such as Florida and Texas, where a combined 35 of those 141 wrongful death row convictions have been overturned.
Remember Troy Davis, executed by Georgia authorities in September 2011 despite overwhelming post-conviction evidence that he had not actually killed a cop? Obama said he couldn't intervene, but two months later he pardoned his annual pair of Thanksgiving turkeys.
Reforming capital punishment could be a vital first step toward overall change. The U.S. prison population of 2.3 million is the largest of any nation on the planet. One in every 100 adults is behind bars. For Latino men, it's 1 in 36. For black men, it's 1 in 15. This sort of throw-away-the-key mentality, or tradition, eventually grows into our ice-cold feelings regarding the ultimate criminal punishment of death.
Please, President Obama, we know you are overwhelmingly busy, but please don't be overwhelmed on this matter. You could reserve a day to make your statement, and then appoint somebody to carry the ball while you head back to the "fiscal cliff" and other day-to-day concerns. Something tells me Judge Greg Mathis, for example, might be an attention-grabber who would be up to the task.