I don't have any moral qualms about the death penalty as a concept. It may make me seem callous or monstrous to some, but I don't think there is anything wrong with some vicious murderers being punished by losing their own lives. That said, it is important to realize the extreme nature of the punishment. It must only be employed when you are as certain as is humanly possible that it is deserved. Certain cases ought to be looked at very carefully. I'm not speaking of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, of whom I can only parrot Cobb's quip: "Every man's death diminishes me, but for Tookie, not much at all." Far more troubling is the case of Cory Maye. You can read about it in depth at The Agitator here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here and here.
A little background is in order. As the drug war escalated police began to use more serious and combative investigation techniques. For about 20 years now police have used no-knock or announce and enter (immediately) techniques in attempts to surprise drug dealers. These often take place in the dead of night and involve sleeping inhabitants of the home being entered. This is not conducive to rational thinking on the part of those who are awakened to loud noises and strangers entering their homes.
In 2001 Officer Ron Jones, whose father was the police chief, passed on a tip to the local narcotics cops that Jamie Smith was dealing drugs. Jamie Smith lived in a duplex. In the middle of the night a SWAT team went into Jamie Smith's house to arrest him and collect evidence. They also went in the back door of this house into Cory Maye's house. There is conflicting testimony about whether they knocked and announced themselves before entering. Frankly I'm not impressed either way. The reality of knock and announce in the middle of the night is that it would be quite easy for the announcement "It's the Police, we're coming in" to wake you without you being able to comprehend the words. In any case, Cory Maye awoke to find darkly clad strangers rushing into the room. He shot and killed Officer Jones (who oddly was entering without his gun drawn). Initial reports were that no drugs were found in Cory Maye's dwelling. Later reports are that 'trace amounts' of drugs were found. He was not charged with drug dealing or with drug possession. He had, however, killed the police chief's son. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. There appear to be some questions about whether or not the warrant was even applicable to Maye's dwelling (hopefully these will be resolved with further investigation now that this case has come to light). I have no problem with the death penalty in general, but the death penalty in this case strikes me as very troublesome.
This case also highlights some of the difficulties that come from the drug war. Entering without warning makes sense if you are trying to surprise someone who might kill a hostage. The risk of going into the wrong house is more worth it if you are attempting to save someone who is in immediate danger. But the risk isn't worth it over some cocaine that isn't being sold to someone right now. It isn't worth it over marijuana. The drug war chips away at our civil liberties in so many ways--I just don't think it is worth it. But that is a discussion for another day. If it is true that Maye was mistakenly thought to be a drug dealer and he reacted as many innocent citizens might to an intruder, he ought not be executed. Maye is not the kind of killer that I have in mind when I argue in defense of the death penalty.
[Update] On reading the details further, I see that the prosecutor is claiming that the identity of the informant who said that the duplex had drug activity going on is not known because only Officer Jones knew his identity. I find that very suspicious, but in any case it makes it much harder to judge the legitimacy of the search.
[Update II] Radley Balko has the latest developments from his digging here, here and here. The prosecutor says that Maye was in the back bedroom and had been awakened by the raid into Smith's half of the duplex. Since it is known that Maye had no criminal record, since drugs were not found in Maye's house, since cops apparently came in the back door, not the front, and since Maye still was scared enough to shoot at the first intruder but not the other police once it was clear they were police, it seems likely to me that they announced at Smith's house but did not announce at Maye's--possibly believing that they were at the back of Smith's house. Balko also has some interesting stories about no-knock and quick knock searches. They aren't a good thing in the context of the drug war.