From Board President, Matthew Engle
My opposition to the death penalty arose out of my work with felons in a furlough program in Cleveland, Ohio. Getting to know people who had committed crimes, often terrible crimes, was an eye-opening experience. These were fundamentally good people. Often they were mentally ill, usually they were addicts, in every case they were complex human beings who could not fairly be judged by their worst moments. I worked with one inmate in particular, Thomas, who had served over 25 years for a murder he committed as a young man. The Thomas I came to know was was one of the humblest, most decent, caring people I’ve ever met. For years after I worked with him, Thomas would return to my office to talk, to bring me gifts, to thank me for helping him, and to learn how he could help other people in his situation. I started to ask myself why someone like Thomas could be afforded a chance to rehabilitate himself, to become the person he was capable of being, while others who committed similar crimes would be written off by society entirely and killed by the state.
Having now worked on death penalty cases for over a decade, I believe that the single biggest determining factor to whether or not a particular defendant gets the death penalty isn’t how terrible the crime was, or how malicious or dangerous the defendant is; it’s the quality of his or her legal representation. With few exceptions, defendants who are fortunate enough to receive quality court-appointed attorneys (or are rich enough to be able to hire them) avoid the death penalty. More often than not, it’s simply the luck of the draw.
The criminal justice system is inherently limited by the flaws of its participants. Prosecutors overreach, as in the Justin Wolfe case, where their fervor to obtain a death sentence led the Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorneys to fabricate a prosecution against an innocent man and to hide evidence that contradicted their theories, conduct that federal judges described as “abhorrent to the judicial process.” Defense attorneys make mistakes, because they are overburdened, lack the resources they need, and sometimes are simply incompetent. Judges err, because putting on a black robe doesn’t make them infallible and because there is often tremendous political pressure on them. My more recent work with The Innocence Project has shown me that the system fails, and that it does so more often than any of us would like to believe. In my view, it is unconscionable to allow such an imperfect system to make the ultimate, irreversible decision to end a human life. I will continue to support VADP until we abolish the death penalty once and for all.
Matthew Engle, Esq.