Clearance rate priority

Posted: April 21, 2017 at 2:23 a.m.

The emotional melee here in the middle of Execution Month has been a sight to behold. Passions will probably continue to prevail over facts, law, reason, justice and perspective.

The flurry of specious legal arguments to spare the lives of long-ago-condemned criminals has invoked incredulity on a magnitude previously unimaginable.

Obesity as an obstacle to execution?

You can never think you've heard it all once a concentration of agenda-driven lawyers reaches critical mass on an issue. The situation has clearly escalated to "say anything" status, and so far, the anti-death penalty crowd that singled out a handful of Arkansas' worst killers as poster boys has been successful in delaying and denying justice, again.

Arkansas hasn't executed a single murderer since 2005, despite losing a couple thousand innocent victims to murder during that time. No objective observer would say the state is killing too many killers.

The Innocence Project isn't called the Truth Project, for good reason. Its cause isn't truth. It champions DNA exonerations with the loudest shouts from the highest rooftops as reasons to end capital punishment. But when DNA confirms a conviction, and a criminal is rightfully executed, it's quiet as a church mouse. Even a just execution is still wrong in its eyes.

Propagandists prop up their arguments using volume, not validity. So the Innocence Project downplays DNA confirmations, which occur more often than exonerations. Convicted criminals typically contact Innocence Project chapters to request help, and whenever DNA proves the petitioning criminal guilty of his crime, it also proves him to be a liar.

Why it ever surprises anyone that a man judged guilty of murdering someone in cold blood could also be guilty of lying about it is bewildering. But the Innocence Project files are full of indubitably duped lawyers, clerks, advocates and celebrities.

For years following his execution in 1992 in Virginia, murderer and rapist Roger Coleman was a cause célèbre contender in the search for a wrongly executed criminal.

"An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight," Coleman boldly claimed moments before dying in Virginia's electric chair. "When my innocence is proven," he added, "I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have."

It can be hard for law-abiding Americans to fathom anyone being so blatantly dishonest on death's doorstep. But when Gov. Mark Warner ordered a new DNA test 14 years after Coleman's execution, it proved neither innocence nor injustice.

The man who had been on the cover of Time magazine, and who had inspired pleas for clemency reaching all the way to the pope, had hoodwinked them all. Coleman was guilty as sin, and wouldn't even come to terms with the truth with his last breath.

All the time, money and resources spent on re-proving what prosecutors had already proved beyond a reasonable doubt 25 years earlier was wasted.

If the government had unlimited resources, sure, it could re-test every criminal who claimed innocence. But criminal justice resources are beyond maxed out, to the point that police can barely investigate, much less solve, the crimes we have now.

The national clearance rate for murders is only about 64 percent. Police consider a case "cleared" when it ends in an arrest. Nationwide, one-third of murders result in no arrest.

In other violent crimes, clearance rates are abysmal. For robberies, the national clearance rate is less than 30 percent. And in six out of 10 forcible rapes, no suspect is ever apprehended.

National averages belie local clearance rates, which vary widely by municipality and by year. In Little Rock, for example, the clearance rate for murder in 2013 was only 24 percent. Across the river and three years later, North Little Rock's homicide clearance rate was 100 percent.

In some places, like Wilmington Del., more than 90 percent of murders can go unsolved.

Because more law enforcement resources are put into clearing crimes like murder and aggravated assault, the clearance rate for property crimes plummets. Nationally, only about 12 percent of burglaries and motor vehicle thefts are cleared. The Little Rock figures were even lower: 8 percent for burglaries in 2013 and only 4 percent for auto thefts.

Down in Pine Bluff in 2013, there were 189 vehicles stolen, but a mere three arrests in all those thefts.

In overtaxed police jurisdictions, victims whose home is burglarized or car stolen can pretty much expect their cases to go unsolved. Victims of even the worst violent crimes have a one-in-three chance or less of seeing the perpetrator caught.

Guilty murderers are more than happy to abuse resources. They have nothing to lose, and they might gain an unjust outcome.

A misguided focus on executions masks the astonishing deterioration in the more important measure of police effectiveness at clearing crimes. Fifty years ago, the murder clearance rate was more than 90 percent. The goal should be to return to that level of crime-solving, but it will take more criminal justice resources in our higher-crime society.

Blindly diverting resources in attempts to DNA test every convicted murderer who says he didn't do it will only help make bad clearance rates even worse.

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Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 04/21/2017