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Innocent lives at risk while death penalty lives

With nearly 300 people across the nation exonerated after being sentenced to death, the risk of executing an innocent person is a reality in the 33 states, including Pennsylvania, where capital punishment remains legal.

That risk alone should be enough to persuade responsible elected officials to scrap the death penalty — as Connecticut did in April, following the lead of Illinois, New Mexico, and New Jersey.

There can be no more compelling reason for taking that step than evidence that the wrong person has been executed for a crime.

And that's exactly what Columbia University law professor James Liebman and five of his students provided this week with their book-length exploration of the 1983 murder for which a Texan, Carlos DeLuna, was put to death in 1989.

DeLuna's conviction in the stabbing death of a female gas-station clerk came despite conflicting and uncertain eyewitness accounts, the fact that DeLuna's clothing at the time of his arrest bore no blood stains, and the fact that prosecutors soon learned of the likely killer — a man who bragged about DeLuna's paying for his crime.

Despite the thoroughness of the professor and his students, prosecutors dismissed the academics as "crusaders." In fact, the lead detective in the Corpus Christi case stands by her investigation.

As it happens, the probable killer died in prison several years after DeLuna. But the lesson in this apparent miscarriage of justice should not be lost on public officials — nor the shrinking majority of Americans who  still support capital punishment.

It's crucial to remember that those backing the death penalty say by wide margins that their continued support rests on the belief that there are legal safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions.

In dozens of cases, fortunately, that safeguard has proven to be the DNA tests that freed many given death-row reprieves.

Yet, it's clear that there are cases like that of the Texas murder where all safeguards fail. Then, there's only one assured way to prevent such a horrifying result — which is by outlawing the death penalty.

Connecticut has become the fifth state to take that progressive step in five years. Since Pennsylvanians don't have the option of a referendum, such as the one that will be before California voters in November, they should demand that their state lawmakers act to make the Keystone State next.

Given that the death penalty is no longer viable in the state — with only volunteers having been executed in recent memory —  Harrisburg officials can't say there's a deterrent effect to a system that also brings exorbitant costs with endless legal appeals.

But more than anything else, it's the specter of killing an innocent person that should mean the death penalty's days are numbered.