An important theme emerged this past weekend at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s annual conference in Harrisburg: the death penalty is not just about what a particular defendant deserves, but about what is best for society at large. There are those who are morally opposed to state-sponsored killing, and there are those who believe that the perpetrators of particularly horrific crimes deserve to die, but there are many things we can all agree on.
1. The safety of society is a major concern for everyone.
We all want to protect ourselves and each other from the worst offenders. While death penalty proponents feel that taking the lives of these offenders is the best way of accomplishing this goal, this may not be the case.
There is a great deal of doubt as to whether the death penalty is a deterrent to individuals who might commit capital crimes, a way to prevent murders from taking place. In fact, a survey of experts from the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the Law and Society Association found that the overwhelming majority – over 80% – do not believe that existing research supports the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to homicide.*
While the death of a defendant who has already committed a homicide certainly removes him or her from society, there are other options – such as life in prison without parole – for doing this.
* (M. Radelet and R. Akers, Deterrence and the Death Penalty: The Views of the Experts, 1995. Cited on the Death Penalty Information Center website.)
2. Victims’ families have suffered devastating and unacceptable harm, and they deserve some type of restitution.
Again, many feel that if we do not sentence offenders to death, we are denying victims’ families the revenge they deserve and sending a message that their loved ones were not important.
Many families of victims, however, do not want to see the killer of their loved ones sentenced to death. This may be a moral standpoint, or it may be due to the very real ways in which the death penalty harms victims’ families. While executing the offender will not bring their loved one back, families will be forced to endure the lengthy capital appeals process, testifying again and again over the course of years – or even decades – and seeing media coverage of the crime over and over. Clearly, this impedes families from healing and moving on with their lives.
In addition, the most important thing to many families after a loved one has been murdered is information about exactly what happened to that person. The offender may be the only person who has this knowledge to give to the survivors. The death penalty may prevent families from ever getting this knowledge. Marietta Jaeger Lane, the mother of a kidnap/murder victim, did not know the whereabouts of her 7-year-old daughter Susie for a full year until the kidnapper called her on the phone. Her forgiveness of him over the phone not only led to his capture, but allowed her to have her questions about what had happened to her daughter answered.
While the current system offers victims’ families retribution – “we will kill the person who did this” – it often provides little of the ongoing help they need, such as mental health care and financial assistance. The capital punishment system expends enormous resources to execute the offender, rather than allocating these resources to programs that work with survivors to address the emotional and practical consequences of the loss of a loved one.
3. The idea that the state could execute an innocent person for a crime he or she did not commit is horrific.
Nonetheless, innocent people are sentenced to die and are executed far too often. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1973, 130 inmates have been released from death row due to evidence of their innocence. This is not solely a result of new DNA technology – in fact, the DPIC says that DNA was a major factor in proving innocence in only 17 of these cases.
Strong evidence also exists that innocent people have actually been executed by the state. For example, investigative reporting by the Chicago Tribune cast serious doubt on the guilt of Carlos De Luna, executed in Texas in 1989. (See story: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Editorial)
4. If the death penalty is to exist, it should be applied fairly and used only to punish the worst offenders.
Overwhelming evidence demonstrates, however, that the death penalty is applied in a racially-biased manner, with non-white defendants and defendants whose victims were white being far more likely to receive a death sentence than white defendants or defendants whose victims were non-white.
The beliefs of individual prosecutors and the financial resources of the jurisdiction in which the crime took place are also major factors in determining who will live and who will die. For example, USA Today reported that while only 9% of murders in the state of Ohio took place in Hamilton County, 25% of the state’s death sentences were imposed there.**
** (R. Willing and G. Fields, “Geography of the Death Penalty,” USA Today, December 20, 1999. Cited on the Death Penalty Information Center website.)
5. The death penalty costs a lot of money.
Due to court costs associated with capital appeals and the increased cost of housing an inmate on death row, it costs more to execute a man than it does to jail him for life.
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice estimated in a 2008 report that the current death penalty costs the state $137 million per year, while a system that used life imprisonment instead of the death penalty would cost just $11.5 million per year.
Likewise, a 2008 study by the Urban Institute found that Maryland taxpayers paid an average of $3 million in court costs per death sentence – nearly three times what they would pay to obtain a sentence of life in prison. These were only the costs to prosecute a capital case and did not include costs such as housing the prisoner on death row or carrying out the execution.
It seems clear that the death penalty is not serving the function it claims to serve in our society. Given the harm to victims’ families, the harm to corrections staff asked to carry out the execution of another human being, and the high monetary cost of the death penalty, it is in the best interests of everyone, whether morally opposed to the death penalty or not, to find alternatives for accomplishing our shared goals of protecting society, providing restitution to victims, and seeing justice fairly applied.
Becca in Harrisburg