The Death Penalty Makes Prime Time

Given the lamentable state of television programming, the recent airings of major shows that openly criticize the death penalty is amazing.

The result of what Geraldo Rivera jokingly described to some of us as his "campaign contribution" to Bush was the show "Deadly Justice," an hour-long special that aired on NBC in early September.

"Deadly Justice" takes the pro-death penalty position that Geraldo once supported and tears it to pieces.

Working with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Geraldo's producers arranged meetings with Illinois death row inmates and their family members. The highlight of the program was an interview with Death Row Ten member Madison Hobley, who was framed for the arson murder of his own family by Chicago cops and tortured into "confessing" to the crime.

Geraldo also took a hard look at Texas, raising doubts about a number of pending executions in that state-making Bush's claim that he's "certain" no innocent people languish on death row seem laughable.

"Deadly Justice" was a tough act to follow -- but Ted Koppel and ABC's "Nightline" gave the show a run for its money, devoting four nights to an investigation of the death penalty in a series titled, "Crime and Punishment."

Koppel unveiled Texas' "sleeping lawyer syndrome," interviewing several former judges who gave firsthand accounts of a system out of control and called for a stop to the madness.

Koppel summed up the series like this: "The percentage of men and women sitting on death row who are Black or Hispanic and poor is so out of proportion to their numbers in the general population that we cannot continue to insist that the system is fair or that the justice we dispense is equal.

"We can choose to ignore that. But we can't deny it."

In the past, Oprah Winfrey has sidestepped the issue of the death penalty -- despite pleas from African American inmates and their families to publicize their plight.

But Winfrey's producers know it's no longer taboo to question the legitimacy of capital punishment -- it's common sense.

Winfrey's audience was in tears after hearing the words of wrongfully convicted inmates Kirk Bloodsworth, Dennis Williams and Gary Gauger.

And Larry Marshall, of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, left no doubt that support for the death penalty means condemning the innocent to die.

These shows are compelling evidence of -- and a contribution to -- the profound rethinking going on in America.

In case you missed any of these shows, you can read summaries on the Web at: