Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs She was 8. I was 26. She was calm, and her answers were matter-of-fact. I was nervous, and my questions showed it.
She was repeatedly raped by her father. I was her father's criminal defense investigator. She's just one of hundreds of crime victims I've interviewed, but she's one I'll never forget.
The longer I talked with this little girl, the more I realized she was too young and innocent to comprehend the reality of the unspeakable acts done by her father. Still, I knew the day would come when she'd understand what she'd been coerced to do, and I despised her father more than I've ever despised anyone.
But as much as I was sickened by her father's unforgiveable crimes, it never once entered my mind that he should be killed. That may place me in the minority of my fellow citizens - and soon with the law.
My memories of this sweet girl were rekindled recently by a national news story with local implications.
The story involves the pending decision by the U.S. Supreme Court concerning whether a person who rapes a child can be executed. The Court decided in 1977 that those who rape adults cannot be sentenced to death, but the court never decided whether those convicted of raping children can be executed.
The case before the court is from Louisiana - where child rape is death penalty eligible - and presents the court with a horrific crime that has reignited the death penalty debate. Before July we'll know the court's opinion.
Child rape in Colorado is not punishable by death, but that could change. Legislation was introduced this year to make rape of a child 12 or younger a capital crime. While the bill died in committee, look for it to be resurrected next year if the Supreme Court clears the way.
A quarter of a century has passed since I interviewed that girl, and I'm a firmer opponent of the death penalty now than I was then. Although I believe no one should kill - other than to prevent the imminent loss of their life or the life of another - my opposition to the death penalty is based more on my experience working in the criminal justice system than on morality.
The justice system in the U.S. is the best in the world, but it's a system run by men and women no more immune to human error and improper motive than the rest of us. If I learned anything during two decades investigating crime, it's that the most emotionally charged cases, especially murder and rape, can result in flawed verdicts as errors and improper motives rise exponentially with aroused emotions.
Hardly a week goes by that someone wrongfully convicted is not released from prison, including 123 off death row, after innocence is proven post-conviction, often by DNA.
One of the most glaring examples of a criminal justice system gone astray was exposed on "60 Minutes" on Sunday. For three decades, Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade put innocent citizens behind bars - many wrongfully convicted of murder or sex crimes - while often concealing evidence of innocence.
Now, new Dallas DA Craig Watkins, Texas' first black man to hold that post, has joined with the Innocence Project of Texas in reviewing hundreds of cases with indicia of wrongful conviction in just that one county. Seventeen men already have been released, most after more than a decade behind bars. The most recent was James Woodard, who spent 27 years in prison for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. DNA evidence proves Woodard didn't commit the crime, and we now know Wade's office hid evidence of the true killer from Woodard's attorneys and the courts.
As horrible as the injustice perpetrated upon Woodard and the thousands of wrongfully convicted inhabiting our prisons is, the real injustice is to the original victim of the crime and the rest of us. Every time we imprison or execute the wrong person, there is no true justice for the victim or for society.
So, I'm always puzzled by those so confident in the criminal justice system and so eager to inflict harsh punishment or death on their fellow man based on what they think they know about a specific crime. I'm even more puzzled as these are often the same folks who decry that O.J. Simpson got off, yet rarely notice the inherent contradiction of that fact with their support of the death penalty.
Rob Douglas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org