Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Let's talk death. Penalties, that is...electric chairs, lethal drugs.

The death penalty has been a hot button issue in this country for just about as long as I can remember.  Certainly since the 60's.  I grew up in Texas, and down there, it's popular.  Texas has officially killed more people annually than some cities have murders annually.

On June 25, 1790, the United States executed its first inmate.  U.S. Marshall Henry Dearborn coordinated the hanging of Thomas Bird in Massachusetts. Dearborn spent five dollars and fifty cents for the construction of a gallows and a coffin.

Since that time, opposition to the death penalty has been slow but steady.  The first inkling was the softening of statutes into different degrees and categories, but later:

Starting around 1833, "public executions were attacked as cruel. Sometimes tens of thousands of eager viewers would show up to view hangings; local merchants would sell souvenirs and alcohol. Fighting and pushing would often break out as people jockeyed for the best view of the hanging or the corpse! Onlookers often cursed the widow or the victim and would try to tear down the scaffold or the rope for keepsakes. Violence and drunkenness often ruled towns far into the night after 'justice had been served.'
Many states enacted laws providing private hangings. Rhode Island (1833), Pennsylvania (1834), New York (1835), Massachusetts (1835), and New Jersey (1835) all abolished public hangings. By 1849, fifteen states were holding private hangings. This move was opposed by many death penalty abolitionists who thought public executions would eventually cause people to cry out against execution itself. For example, in 1835, Maine enacted what was in effect a moratorium on capital punishment after over ten thousand people who watched a hanging had to be restrained by police after they became unruly and began fighting. All felons sentenced to death would have to remain in prison at hard labor and could not be executed until one year had elapsed and then only on the governor's order. No governor ordered an execution under the 'Maine Law' for twenty-seven years." 
Michael H. Reggio "History of the Death Penalty," (accessed Dec. 16, 2009)
By the twentieth century, electricity and gas were in use around the US as a more humane means of execution.

The last public execution occurred in 1936, and several botched executions gave the issue some concern, but the real opposing movement to the death penalty didn't begin until 1955.

On June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the death penalty unconstitutional as administered:

"In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 29, 1972 that in all cases before the court, the death penalty as administered violated the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments. Of the five Supreme Court Justices, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall were alone in declaring the death penalty unconstitutional as a form of punishment entirely. Justice Brennan was sweeping in his indictment, claiming the death penalty was unconstitutional for any crime, any person, using any method. All five justices concurred on the grounds of arbitrariness. Specifically, Justice Stewart proclaimed that the decisions were randomly made as if 'being struck by lightening.' At the same time the death penalty was declared random, it was also declared discriminatory in its application...
The Furman decision invalidated the death penalty statutes in several states. Thirty-five states responded to this ruling, not by abolishing capital punishment, but by using Furman as a guideline for developing a constitutionally acceptable statute. During this moratorium, hundreds of sentences were commuted to life imprisonment."
In subsequent years, numerous States have revamped their death penalties to adhere to the new ruling and have continued to execute inmates.

In April, 2012, Connecticut abolished the death penalty, and this week, the Maryland legislature voted to abolish the death penalty as well.  Of course, the issue isn't over - it still must be passed by the House of Delegates and be signed by the Governor, who has promised to sign it.  He has written a most interesting article about his reasoning in a post here.

Maryland would be the 18th State to abolish the death penalty if it succeeds.

My own personal problem with the death penalty is outlined pretty well by the governor:
Between 2000 and 2011, an average of 5 death row inmates were exonerated every year. In Maryland, between 1995 and 2007, our state’s reversal rate for the death penalty was 80 percent.   (emphasis mine - CA)
By 1999 the city of Baltimore had become the most violent and drug addicted city in America. Through all the preceding decades of rising violence, the death penalty was on the books and did absolutely nothing to prevent this from happening. Effective policing, expanded drug treatment, smarter strategies, new technologies to solve crime and target repeat violent offenders — these are the things that work to drive down violent crime.
Just as the death penalty did not prevent Baltimore from becoming the most violent city in America in the 1990s, it also contributed nothing at all to Baltimore’s historic reductions in crime over the last decade.
Nor has the death penalty had any positive impact on our more recent statewide success in Maryland, in driving down violent crime and homicides to three-decade lows. 
Every dollar we throw at maintaining an ineffective death penalty is a dollar we are not investing in the strategies and tactics that actually work to save lives.
 I would add that the most disturbing part of the problem is this:

Capital punishment is not a deterrent, it is not fool-proof, it is administered with great racial disparity, it costs three times as much as life without parole, and there is no way to reverse a mistake when an innocent person is wrongly convicted.
 Personally, I have always argued that it would be a deterrent if it were more swiftly administered, but with the current system having such flaws that make it so racially unbalanced, I see no way to fix that problem any time soon!

The topper is the absolute refusal in many jurisdictions by prosecutors and often courts to allow DNA evidence after the fact to overturn a conviction, allowing sloppy police work and often sheer racial animosity to keep the condemned on death row.

Don't get me wrong.  I do believe that some people are so unremittingly evil and have done such horribly bad things that they really should be executed.  I'd rather spend more to kill them than to keep them alive in such cases, and I do believe that society has a right to use the power of the State to do so in extreme cases.

But given that it is a penalty that cannot be reversed once applied, we'd damn sure better be right, and today, in virtually every State, we just aren't.

1 comment:

Edward Haines said...

I have been opposed to capital punishment for many years. Ever since I spent an evening with a friend (Byron Eschelman) who was the chaplain on San Quentin's death row. The reasons for my opposition included my opposition to violence in general, lack of certainty that the person to be executed actually did the crime, and others.
More recently, I have changed my mind about the entire concept of punishment for crimes. I see little to be gained from punishing criminals. Corporal punishment has little effect on children and their conduct, why would we expect it to have effect on adults who are fully developed?
I believe that all citizens are entitled to full freedom within the constraints of applicable laws. When a citizen is found not able to use that freedom in a responsible manner, we need to take steps limiting his/her freedom in such a manner as to prevent his abuse of freedom. For example, a inebriated driver should lose his permit to drive (license). If that fails to limit the undesirable activity, more stringent limitation should be taken. The limitation can be increased until such time as the malefactor no longer misbehaves or is unable to do so. Incarceration in a prison should be limited to those who are found to be a danger to other citizens. Duration of incarceration should be determined on the basis of whether that person is still a danger to other citizens. In any event, the incarceration should always be humane and should include food, shelter, education and other actions that might serve to rehabilitate that person. Violent murderers (whatever their motivation) should be permanently incarcerated with no parole.
I should add that there are innumerable "crimes" on our books at this point in which the perpetrators pose no threat to other citizens and should not be arrested nor restricted in any manner. Examples of this are use of marijuana, polygamy, prostitution, pornography (other than child involved pornography), and a host of related actions.
Bottom line, we do not need to punish criminals, we need to protect the rest of society from their actions.