Seldom in life is something so blatantly true that a person can make an authoritative statement and believe it right beyond a shadow of a doubt. Some people admittedly do think themselves as always right, but this does not prove their genius—rather, it marks them instead as ignorant of the human experience. Thus, acknowledging the possibility that any of us may be wrong is an integral part of human life and one that should be embraced. Without it, discourse would be stifled and there would be no room for intellectual or emotional growth.
Recognizing this as true and common to all humanity, it stands to wonder why we as a human race repeatedly view ourselves as all-knowing, casting concrete judgments on various aspects of society. One of the more striking examples of this phenomenon is the use of the death penalty to exterminate those that society deems deplorable beyond possessing the right to live.
The state of Missouri is somewhat fond of the death penalty, utilizing it 22 times from 2010-2019 to kill those guilty of heinous crimes. May saw Missouri’s first use of the death penalty in 2020 as Walter Barton, a man convicted of first-degree murder over three decades ago, was killed by lethal injection. The case was especially controversial because Barton had always maintained his innocence, and the Innocence Project, the leading organization dedicated to freeing those unjustly convicted of crimes, believes that Missouri likely killed an innocent man.
Barton’s guilty conviction relied upon testimony from a jailhouse snitch coupled with bloodstain pattern analysis, a practice that has been widely condemned by the scientific community. But the most damning evidence against Barton’s conviction is the fact the three jurors who initially found him guilty have since rescinded their verdicts, believing that in light of new evidence, such as the condemnation of the bloodstain pattern analysis, there was no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to kill Barton.
Barton’s case parallels an earlier Missouri death penalty case in which another perhaps innocent man was put to death. Larry Griffin, a St. Louis man found guilty of 1980 murder, was killed via lethal injection in 1995. At the time of his killing, the case against Griffin had all but collapsed, with two key witnesses modifying their statements about seeing Griffin at the crime scene. Another crucial witness who could have exonerated Griffin did not testify, meaning that the jury that convicted Griffin did so with insufficient evidence.
This hubristic propensity to forge ahead with one’s belief without acknowledging that they may be wrong cut short the lives of at least two Missouri men. Missouri Legislator Sarah Unsicker crafted legislation that would end the death penalty in Missouri. The bill, which did not make it out of committee in the 2020 regular session, would eliminate the death penalty as punishment and instead sentence anyone convicted of first-degree murder to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The Missouri Legislature must pass legislation like this as soon as possible so as not to kill any more potentially innocent men and women. While many arguments can be made against the death penalty, including the ones laid out here, the one stipulating that human nature is fallible and thus never in the right to condemn another person to death is all-encompassing.
By ensuring the possibility of error, we allow one another the opportunity to prove that they may have a more convincing case. This would mean that Walter Barton and Larry Griffin would still be alive today, fighting for their freedom. Whether they would ultimately achieve this end goal is anybody’s guess, but the most important thing is that they would still have the right to battle for their lives. The death penalty takes this away.