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Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Prof fights death penalty

To some, professor David Dow is an advocate for murderers. To others, he is the only chance they may have at receiving fair legal representation.

A vehement opponent of the death penalty, Dow has written several books against the practice.

"I’m against killing people," Dow said. "I think that in order to justify killing somebody, you have to have a very powerful reason that overcomes the rule that killing is wrong."

Dow, founder of the UH-based Texas Innocence Network – which works to review criminal cases in hopes of exonerating the wrongfully convicted – first got involved in defending death row inmates after taking a trip with a friend to a prison.

"I met a bunch of people on that field trip, and one of the guys who I met was scheduled to be executed in two weeks and he didn’t have a lawyer. Nowadays, people get appointed lawyers to do their appeals, but back then they didn’t.

"So this guy was a couple of weeks away from execution and his lawyer quit, and he didn’t have a right to a lawyer. So I agreed to represent him. I didn’t really, at that time, know very much. I knew close to nothing, really, about how to handle a death penalty appeal but I figured, ‘I can learn.’ And even if I don’t know anything, at least I’m a lawyer, and that’s better than no lawyer. So that was how I got into it. Then I found that rewarding and important," Dow said.

The point is not necessarily to prove his clients innocent, Dow said, because only five or six percent of death row inmates are really innocent of the crime they were convicted for.

"In death penalty cases, my objective is to keep them alive, which basically means moving them from death row to the general prison population," Dow said. "In the cases of the five or six percent who are innocent, my goal is to get them out of prison. In the cases of the 95 percent who aren’t innocent, my goal is to get them off death row so they have a life sentence rather than a death sentence."

Dow said he often faces criticism about his stance on the death penalty, but continues to be an advocate for abolition of the punishment.

"It is a mistake to confuse what I do and what I think about the death penalty with sympathy for murderers. I don’t have any sympathy for murderers," he said. "Because I think killing is wrong. I think that if somebody commits murder, that means that person should be punished very severely and punished in a way that is both a punishment to him and also keeps society safe, and in my view, that can be accomplished by keeping that person in prison for a very long time. In some cases, forever."

Those in favor of the death penalty often cite the traditional rule of "an eye for an eye," but Dow said he doesn’t support such notions, considering the concept known in Latin as lex talionis to be a limitation of punishment rather than a justification for severe punishment.

"Nobody believes that if somebody who kills somebody by stabbing them 41 times, that therefore, what the state should do is kill that person by stabbing them 41 times," he said.

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