Sunday, December 9, 2007

What if he had been executed?

December 9, 2007

What if he had been executed?

The Times-Union

After Chad Heins was convicted of first-degree murder, the prosecution sought the death penalty.

It was unquestionably a heinous crime, the kind that one could see leading to the death penalty. Tina Heins, Chad's sister-in-law, was pregnant when someone stabbed her 27 times.

The jury had deliberated for hours before deciding that, yes, that someone was Chad Heins. But when it came to a sentencing, the jury quickly recommended life, not death.

Twelve years later, that decision has new significance.

On Tuesday, Heins, now 33, became a free man.

In light of DNA testing of physical evidence - which matched someone other than Heins - murder and attempted rape charges were dropped.

Afterward, one of his Jacksonville lawyers, Robert Link, left the courtroom and headed to the office of County Judge Brent Shore. In 1996, Shore was one of Heins' defense attorneys.

"He congratulated me," Link said. "But I told him, 'This might never happened if you hadn't gotten him a life sentence.'"

"By now," said Robert Beckham, another local lawyer who represented Heins, "he could have been executed."

And there lies my qualms with the death penalty.

For me, it isn't a matter of whether it's an effective deterrent, or whether the method of execution is humane. In something like the case of a couple buried alive, I have trouble mustering any concern about whether the killers' punishment will be "cruel or unusual."

It isn't so much a belief that a civilized society cannot execute a guilty person as it is a belief that we cannot execute an innocent one.

I've heard the argument that if the cost of killing the Ted Bundys of the world includes killing a few innocent people, so be it. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, right?

Through the years, we've undoubtedly broken some eggs. Heins is among more than 200 people nationwide, and the ninth in Florida, freed by DNA testing.

Our justice system isn't perfect. Never will be. So with the death penalty, the question becomes: What level of potential error is acceptable?

The jury in the Heins case seemed to wrestle with that, deciding to convict, then quickly recommending life.

That was Dec. 27, 1996.

In Florida, the current average length of time on Death Row before execution is 12.19 years.

If Heins had been sentenced to death, and if the new evidence hadn't led to the dismissal of charges, it's conceivable that about now Heins could have been deciding what to have for a last meal.

Instead, Tuesday night, he went to a local steakhouse and had a first dinner. Filet and fries, berries and cream for dessert.

When the steak came, Heins started to reach for it with his hands, then looked up and apologized. He explained that he hadn't used a knife and fork in more than a decade.

The next day, nearly 14 years after the murder, Chad Heins headed home to Wisconsin.

Some have asked: What if he was guilty? What would that say about our justice system?

Heins, who has always maintained his innocence, waived his speedy trial rights. So the case can be reopened any time.

But with physical evidence - from DNA to a fingerprint in a bloody sink - now pointing to someone else, it raises the flip side of that question.

What if he always was innocent? And what if he had been executed? What would that say about our justice system?, (904) 359-4212

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