A matter of death or life

When we think about the economic downturn, most of us probably think in terms of job security, whether we can pay the bills, the effect on our savings for retirement, and the rapidly rising national debt. But until yesterday I had given little thought to its effect on the criminal justice system.

USA Today reports that several states have been considering abolishing the death penalty, primarily as a means to save money. Some proponents of the death penalty are quick to point out (see readers’ comments on this article) how much less it would cost to execute criminals right away than to keep them in prison for years or even decades. But it is the appeals process that costs so much money, and the recent examples of people exonerated based on DNA evidence show that the initial verdict is certainly not always right.

I remember when I first heard of the death penalty. I was in the living room, near the console radio, and I saw a headline about it. I don’t know if it was in 1972 when the Supreme Court invalidated death penalty statutes in 40 states, or in the following years as some states rewrote their laws, approved by the Supreme Court in 1976. I do remember that I was horrified at the thought.

Since my mother had attempted to raise us to have reverence for all life (including plant and even animal life), no doubt the idea of state-sanctioned killing bothered me. But was really chilled me was the thought that a crime could have such irrevocable consequences. (There was no one to point out to me that of course murder already had irrevocable consequences for the victim and his family.) It seems strange to me now, but at the time I worried that I could somehow one day accidentally commit such a crime.

When I began attending the fundamentalist church where I had come to accept Jesus as Savior, I was initially surprised to discover that the death penalty was considered not only a good thing but required by God. The pastor pointed to Genesis 9:6 where God said “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” (I quote this in the King James Version as that was the only Bible used in that church.)

The first discussion I remember having with someone opposed to the death penalty was in the late 1980’s, with a friend at work who was very active in the local Democratic Party. To my surprise, her opposition was not out of sympathy for convicted murderers (she said that they could all be considered guilty by reason of insanity, as no truly sane person would ever commit murder) but based on the inconsistency with which the law is applied.

If you can afford the best lawyer, she said, you could get off with a light sentence if not outright acquittal. But your chances would be much worse with an overworked public defender. That being the case, the appeals process was very important, to give those who had been wrongly convincted the chance to get the sentence overturned. And the appeals process was so lengthy and so expensive that in the end, it cost a great deal more to take a capital case all the way through to the execution chamber than simply to give a life sentence to begin with.

Based on the statistics in yesterday’s USA Today article, my friend apparently was correct. A former California judge who sent nine men to death row, none of whom has yet been executed (one died of a heart attack while in prison), now says that “It’s a waste of time and money.” In California it takes an average of 20 years for the appeals process to finish in death penalty cases, and (according to this judge) a death sentence ends up costing ten times as much as life imprisonment.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the ratio for federal murder cases is eight times higher cost where the death penalty is sought. Various states report different figures, but they all add up to hundreds of millions of dollars that might have been saved. To those convinced that executing a murderer is the right thing to do, the dollar amounts are probably not all that convincing. But the problem is the uncertainty whether those convicted of murder are in fact murderers.

I have been meaning for years to read a book by Scott Turow on this topic. Ultimate Punishment examines carefully the arguments on both sides of the issue. A customer review at amazon.com summarizes it:

Before the Moratorium, Turow admits that he was a “Death Penalty Agnostic”. In other words, the man was a fence sitter, refusing to make a stand either way. However, after two years on the committee, and by the end of the essay, if asked whether Illinois should retain Capital Punishment, his answer is a certain, no. After reading the many reasons for and against the debate, I found it understandable why he fell off the fence. That the system is fallible and the fact that, for the most part, we seem to be hard wired for revenge, it has been all too easy, in our zealousness for justice or retribution, to execute innocent people. This has occurred far too many times for any government to be comfortable executing its citizens. But of course, as Turow plainly points out, this issue is a complex one, which begs to be further unpacked, potently analysed, in order to make it law, either way, across the boards.

A book I had not heard of previously was written by Mark Fuhrman, “a decorated and dedicated Los Angeles street cop with more than 20 years service.” His was a longstanding conviction that there was nothing “fundamentally wrong with the death penalty,” and that while the system was not perfect it was for the most part fair. But he accepted a challenge to take a closer look at cases in Oklahoma (the state with the highest per capita execution rate), and his mind was changed.

In my career as a detective, both as a police officer and an author, I have always followed the evidence, wherever it led. My investigation of the death penalty in Oklahoma County has brought me to this conclusion: death penalty cases are not investigated or prosecuted at a level that can guarantee justice, or even that the accused is actually guilty.

I no longer believe in the death penalty. I no longer have faith that it is administered fairly or justly. I fear innocent people have been executed …

When even judges and police officers who once endorsed the death penalty have been convinced that we should abandon it, I’m inclined to think they are right.

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