Starr: Death-penalty cases merit better news coverage

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In Kenneth Starr's view, the press doesn’t provide enough coverage of the death penalty, whether it be of individual capital cases and efforts to reform the system.

The dean of Pepperdine University Law School expressed his views during a panel discussion, “The Press, the Public and the Death Penalty,” hosted Jan. 26 by the First Amendment Center.

Starr, well-known for his work as Whitewater special prosecutor, in recent years has done pro bono work for Kirkland & Ellis on death-penalty cases.
Starr and the other members of the panel — Judge Gilbert Merritt of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Bradley A. McLean of the Tennessee Justice Project — agreed that the press could do a better job covering death-penalty cases, including new efforts to use DNA testing to determine guilt or innocence in capital cases.
The panelists said that often when the press doesn't cover individual cases, it cites the public's lack of interest in such reporting. However, the panelists said, the press has an obligation to report on capital punishment and the public should pay attention.
The news media often “don't think that the public is interested in the intricacies of the cases,” Merritt said.
The depth of the reporting was also criticized by McLean, a Nashville attorney.
“I’ve noticed in Tennessee, there has been a lower level of investigative reporting,” he said. “The reporters are on the case for that day.”
Starr said certain decisions regarding the death penalty get little — or unequal — attention from the press. For instance, he said, when pleas for clemency are denied, those decisions get no coverage.
“The press does a wonderful job when it comes to exonerations, but it’s the next step that is tough for the press,” Starr said. That “next step” is reporting on cases in which inmates are not exonerated but still may be on death row although innocent.
Starr said he did not believe the death penalty should be abolished because there are certain crimes that are so bad that death is society's only fitting response. He said, however, that the legal procedures and administration of capital punishment needed to be reformed.
“Society has the right to self defense, but it should be limited,” Starr said.
The panelists said issues in addition to DNA testing that need to be addressed in debates over the death penalty and reform include:

  • Geographical inconsistencies within individual states concerning how the death penalty is applied. Some counties seek the death penalty for capital crimes, while others do not.

  • Cost. McLean, who supports abolishing the death penalty, said that if cost were discussed openly, death-penalty reform would be taken more seriously by politicians and the public.

  • Execution methods. Some of the 38 states that have the death penalty use lethal injection. But questions have been raised by those urging reform as to whether or not this type of execution is cruel and unusual punishment. Starr said he thought “a more humane way” than injection should be used.

    Starr, who also served as judge for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, said newspaper editorial boards should put forth more effort in trying to reform the system. He said editorial boards needed to “become thoughtful instruments of reform.”
    The panel was moderated by Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, and co-moderated by Larry Bridgesmith, who heads the Institute for Conflict Resolution at Lipscomb University. The audience included a group of the Freedom Forum's Chips Quinn Scholars, Lipscomb and Vanderbilt University students and Vanderbilt’s Retired Learning participants.

    Shandra West is a senior at Belmont University in Nashville, majoring in communication.

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