Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Weekly round table...the death penalty

This week we've decided to tackle arguably the most devisive topics in our country, the death penalty.

I'm up first...

As the years have passed my political ideology has morphed and evolved. My penance in law school was invaluable as I came to recognize the ominous specter of big and intrusive government. In a word my personal political philosophy is becoming decidedly more myopic, and dare say, more protectionist. But my views on what will ultimately serve these United States and protect her from harm is also nearly the polar opposite of my beliefs circa 1990-’95.

Thus, my stance on the death penalty has done a 180. I was once a “kill ‘em all” zealot. No punishment was too harsh for those who chose to snuff out the life of another or serially molest, rape, and torture. These individuals were pond scum and deserving of the most finite and dastardly punishment available and I would’ve been more than happy to flip the switch.

Times will change as do perspectives. No longer do I view the death penalty as the ultimate panacea that will cure all murder and heinous crime. Let me tell you why…

The government should in no way, shape, or form be given even the slightest discretion to kill its own citizens. It is the height of folly to assume the government will act with restraint when they’re given the opportunity to execute their citizenry.

In every state that employs the death penalty it costs nearly twice as much to execute the average death row inmate than keeping them behind bars for life. Why? Because death penalty cases are 3-5 times longer than other murder trials, the appeals process is lengthy and expensive, and court costs abound throughout the process.

The only way to reduce these hidden costs is to limit the appeals process. But this rationale is a double-edged sword. The appellate mechanism was devised as a measure to police the government’s actions in its prosecution of crime & punishment. When doling out the most severe punishment imaginable the public must be assured that the government acted properly and within the scope of its legislative mandate. And the police and prosecutors are nothing more than arms of the government bestowed with nearly limitless resources all in the name of upholding and enforcing the laws. As such they must abide by and follow the exact letter of the law or our criminal justice system looses all credibility and legitimacy. After all, if the government actors don’t follow the law why should the general public.

If the appeals process is limited you remove any meaningful impediment to rampant illegal criminal prosecutions, an especially foolish move when the punishment is death.

When the government is trying to execute one of its own citizens they should have to jump through an infinite series of litigious hoops. The one sure way to reduce the enormous cost of the average execution is to abolish the death penalty. It’s sure, cost effective, and removes the ability of our states to kill their people.

Currently in the U.S. 38 states sanction capital punishment. Since 1976, 1,023 inmates have been executed in the U.S., and 3,373 currently sit on death row. The U.S. executes on a greater scale than every nation on earth, save Russia and China. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 56% of the American public favored the death penalty while 36% favored life imprisonment. Nearly every year between 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court, and 1995 the murder rate went up. Since ’95 the rates have declined a bit; in fact since ’99 the per capita murder rate dipped to 5.5, the lowest such level since 1965.

These numbers suggest a couple things. First, the government, when given the opportunity, will kill its citizens with fervent zeal. Second, the death penalty seems to have little to no relation to overall murder rates. Lastly, the American public has actually been duped into believing that the death penalty works.

Does capital punishment serve as an effective deterrent? According the most studies and statistical analysis the answer is a resounding no. Is the death penalty cost effective? Hell no. Is it moral for our government to divvy out death sentences at its whim? Once again, no. You must be able to answer yes to all these questions if you feel the death penalty is a legitimate governmental exercise.

Now the government would be all too happy to keep this train of death rolling. They’re in the game to expand power and placate the masses. Their very DNA dictates a willingness to throw John Q Public under the proverbial bus. The death penalty is a tool and serves a fickle and amoral master.

Since attending law school I’ve become genuinely fearful of expansive government. The thought that my country and state can execute me and have the majority of Americans condone such practices doubly scares me.

Now, Billy D...

Ah…the death penalty. The sound of “Old Sparky” as a few thousand watts course through it’s metal veins. The smell of crispy-fried man-flesh wafting through the air.

Kidding. It may surprise some of you to know, I am not a proponent of the death penalty, with very, very few exceptions.

See, first of all, to put one to death for some heinous crime, is to give them an easy out, and sometimes, exactly what they want. No, we can do much, much better.
For starters, even though many states still carry that penalty on their books, they’ve not used it in decades, and won’t for many more. So what’s the point? As a deterrent? No, it’s entirely useless for that. It stops no-one from carrying out whatever madness it is they seek.

Let’s say, for capital crimes, instead of placing an inmate on death-row for the next thirty years while appeal after appeal moves through the system until said inmate dies in prison, we get a bit creative with the punishments.

First, we set up a few special facilities made just for these folks. Super-prisons like the one in Colorado. Say a few in Northern Alaska, and maybe two or three in Death Valley. So if one were to escape, it’s a slow suicide at the hands of the sun or a polar bear.

Now, 23.5 hours a day you sit in your cell. You get fifteen minutes a day for recreation, which takes place in a concrete room, maybe ten feet by ten feet. The other fifteen minutes out of the cell is for a shower.

The only item allowed to you in your cell is a Bible or Koran, or whichever Holy book you choose. But that’s it. No TV, no radio, magazines, whatever. Nothing.

Oh, and no phone calls, letters, no type of communication with the outside world whatsoever. For all intents and purposes, you are dead to the outside world.

Cruel and unusual? You’re there for a reason. Not for robbing a bank or for rape or embezzlement (As an aside, for those type of sexual crimes, either life in prison with no parole, or 25 years and physical castration should do the trick) but because you committed a capital offense.

Then again, instead of wasting all that free labor, maybe we start work farms where these type of lowlifes work day in and day out for the rest of their natural lives doing some horribly repetitive and useless task like breaking rocks with a hammer or whatever.

See, I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from the application of the death penalty except vengeance for vengeance’s sake. While I do understand that, as if it were me who had lost someone to a heinous act I’d want my revenge too, but the state has to be the overseer in it all, and at times the voice of reason.

Now, I did say “with a few exceptions”. Any offense involving children in any way, including murder and/or sexual violation automatically warrants the death penalty, which is then carried out swiftly. The defendant is limited to one appeal, which is reviewed by a three judge panel within thirty days. If it’s turned down, on day thirty one the offender is publicly executed by being drawn and quartered. This, I think, actually would be a deterrent to some. But it would have to be public, maybe pay per view or something. Whatever it took to get the word out.

But as far as killers go, half the time they’re ready and wanting to die anyway, they’re just begging for someone to do it for them, so why reward them with a granted wish. Make the punishment last a lifetime, and make it harsh.

Now, Morgan...

My husband and I were watching the news the night it was announced that the body of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was found buried within sight of the Florida home from which she’d been abducted a month earlier.

I remember my husband saying, “If someone hurt you or the kids I don’t even want to think of where I’d go, it would be such a dark place.”

I understood. Part of me was already there. In Jessica Lunsford I could see my own children. In her killer, John Evander Couey, I saw a man who deserved not just death, but a horrible one. If such a man broke into my home with the intention of harming my family, I can assure you he would not walk out alive.

I am in favor of killing in self-defense. Likewise, I could hardly blame a person whose rage led them to take the life of their loved one's murderer. If Jessica Lunsford’s father had gotten hold of Couey before the police did and ripped the man limb from limb, the actions of such grief and rage would be fully understandable. What parent wouldn’t want to avenge the death of a beloved child? I know I would.

The concept of revenge satisfies some hunger in us. Movies are full of it and we cheer when the bad guy finally gets his. Revenge supposed to bring “closure,” a relatively new and ridiculous concept that somehow implies getting even sets everything to rights.

But real life is different. The victim won’t be brought back to life when the killer takes his last breath. The victim’s family may feel a moment’s satisfaction as the man on the gurney draws his last breath, but such satisfaction should hardly be the basis for public policy.

That’s just one of the reasons I oppose the death penalty.

The prison system’s job is to keep bad people off the streets. It has no business killing people on behalf of crime victims.

This stance makes people indignant. “If the murderer is put to death he won’t do it again,” they say. But the same thing can be achieved by keeping him behind bars. If John Evander Couey, a career criminal with a 30-year record, hadn’t been turned back out, Jessica Lunsford would still be alive.

And let’s not forget that while Couey admitted his guilt, some death row inmates maintain their innocence.

“Oh, they all do,” you may say. But some are, indeed, wrongly convicted. Here in North Carolina, death row inmate Alan Gell was released in 2004 after it was revealed that prosecutors withheld key evidence at his trial, including an audiotape of one of the witnesses saying she’d “made everything up.”

Gell is far from alone. I won’t bore you with statistics, but go to this Web site for an eye-opening look at just how flawed the system is:

It seems especially egregious to put people to death when exoneration is so readily available to those who can afford it. Look at O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake. Both men are likely guilty, but were lawyered up enough to walk away with their freedom. Escaping the ultimate penalty shouldn’t depend on one’s wealth or celebrity.

A system that can’t adequately dispense justice has no place putting people to death. The system should work to determine guilt or innocence. If true guilt is found, the killer should be put away to await the Hand of God.

The death penalty involves years of expensive appeals followed by a death far more gentle that monsters like Couey deserve. This is a man who raped a little girl and buried her alive. The hard part of me objects to his slipping off into a state-ordered permanent sleep. The hard part of me wants to think of this man as an 80-year-old, staring at the walls of his prison cell, painfully choking on his own phlegm. Perhaps as he lies there, he tries remember what the sun felt like on his face. But each time he tries the fleeting memory is replaced by the cold hopelessness that has haunted him throughout his lengthy confinement.

There are some penalties worth than death.