Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Another One Bites The Dust

Well, the country sure is safer today because that doer of heinous deeds, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, is no longer of this world. Feel free to breath a sigh of relief. Once again we have managed to show the world that hypocrisy is us. Especially those silly little countries (Great Britain, Australia, Germany, France ) that have a much lower crime rate than do we. Maybe it is their lack of the necessary weaponry? Or perhaps they have come to the realization that executions cost scads more money than does a sentence of life in prison, and that a death sentence is not really a deterrent.

I am sure that some of you will take exception to two statements in the last paragraph, that it costs more to execute a prisoner, and that execution is not a deterrent. I would like to give you some facts about Capital Punishment so we can all start on the same page. Some of them will be eye openers I hope.

From a time when we were still a miniscule bump on the behind of Great Britain, execution has been an option, and the earliest Colonial records can attest to that. Since those days 13,000 people in this country have been put to death for various types of murder. Of those 400 were found to be innocent, after spending years in prison, but, unfortunately, 23 had already been put to death. By the 1930's almost 150 people a year were put to death, but public support waned, and legal challenges to the death penalty, saw a drop to almost zero by 1967. In 1972 the practice was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 1976 it again allowed it, and each state could decide whether or not to reinstate the practice.

At this time only 12 states, and the District of Columbia, have banned the death penalty; Alaska, DC, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The following states allow for it, but have not carried out any executions since 1976; Connecticut, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and the US Military.

Despite your perhaps preconceived notion that those states which have banned the death penalty, or those listed which do not choose to use it, must surely have a higher crime rate. No, they do not. In fact, those states have the lowest crime rates across the country. Texas and Oklahoma have the highest rate of executions carried out and the crime rate has risen. So much for the deterrence argument.

While Texas' claim to fame may be the highest number of death sentences carried out in a year, Virginia executes more people per capita, than any other state over a million in population. No Federal execution has been carried out since 2001 ( out of a Federal Death Row inmate population of 21 at Terre Haute, Indiana) and that one, was the first in 36 years. Since 1976, when it was allowed again, the death penalty has claimed over 780 prisoners lives and 2 out of every three (65.6%) of those executions took place in only five states; Texas, with 256 killings (34% of the total), led the pack ahead of Virginia, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma.

There are approximately 2700 prisoners awaiting death in this country in 37 state death rows, 31 being held by the U.S. government and military, and of those 1.5% are women. Most all of those executed are male, however, in the State of Texas, Karla Fay Tucker had the dubious distinction of being the first woman executed there since 1863, and Judith Beenano carries the title for first woman since 1848 to be executed in Florida. Velma Barfifeld was executed in North Carolina in 1984. Of all those who have gone to trial for murder most were unable to hire a private attorney and had to rely on a court appointed one.

As mentioned, above, in those states which do have the death penalty the homicide rate is almost double that of states without it. No one is quite sure why this phenomenon exists but it has been suggested that perhaps, with state sanctioned murder, the message may be that life is cheap in any case. In those developed countries where the death penalty is not in use or has been banned altogether, the crime rate has continually declined. Canada, which no longer has the death penalty, and until recently refused to extradite prisoners here, if they would in fact face a death sentence (as does Great Britain), has a minimum sentence, for murder, of 25 years before parole is even considered. However, if the person has a history of being a violent offender then more than likely they will never be released.

What do Canada and those other developed nations know that we seem not to be able to grasp? That they have seen that it is not a deterrent and that the risk that an innocent person may be put to death? You may feel that having lost only 23 people to wrongful execution is not that high a cost. What if it were you who had faced that sentence, knowing you were innocent and not having anyone listen to you or believe you, or what if it were someone you loved?

On average the cost of executing a prisoner on death row is about 1.8 Million dollars, which, granted, may vary from state to state. So, let us look at some figures. Texas especially, with the highest rate of executions, estimates that it costs the state $2,316,655 in appeals. To house that same prisoner, in a maximum security prison for 40 years, would be $750,000. For California, the death penalty costs it's tax payers $90,000,000 annually and $78 million of that is spent at trial level. Between 1973 and 1988 Florida spent an estimated $57,000,000 on capital murder cases in order to get a result of 18 executions. That translates to approximately 3.2 million per case. If indeed Florida has estimated that they spend at least 3.8 million per execution, and only $170,000 per year to house that same inmate, (40 year sentence/no parole) it makes much more fiscal sense to spend that $680,000 as opposed to the much higher figure.

How does a death sentence then serve us as a society? Can we say, unequivocally that it is a deterrent? No we cannot for we have seen that in those states, where it is applied, the homicide rate has increased. It is simply an act of revenge, and revenge is an emotional response. It serves no purpose other than to continue a cycle of violence even if that violence is state sponsored. It may gratify some but it also may hurt others; remember those 26 innocents put to death. The argument that the death penalty is a deterrent has always been that there goes one person who will no longer be able to repeat his crime. Taken in that light, a sentence of life without possibility of parole would serve the same purpose.

These days it is politically correct to be a "good Christian". References to the Bible swirl around us as do the letters WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?). We do not let a Dr. Jack Kevorkian take a life, even when he has been sought out for that purpose. Our argument? Only God can take a life. We refuse to allow a woman who is, to all intents and purposes, already dead, go to "meet her maker" without a great hew and cry from those who proclaim that they trust in God. As God's extension on earth Jesus was sent to teach us that God was a loving Father. that we should love our enemies and "forgive those who trespass against us." For all of that we still stand, filled with blood lust, adhering to the Code of Hammurabi, forgetting that "vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord."

WWJD? If I remember correctly it was Jesus who, coming upon a public execution, uttered the words, "let he among you, who is without sin, cast the first stone." If He were on jury I think he would opt for the life sentence.

Susan B. Goodwin