By David O. Dabney
If ever there was anyone who has been a poster child for capital punishment, it would be Tim McVeigh. During the trial, a picture has slowly emerged of a man who, with others' help, methodically planned and executed a cold-blooded attempt to destroy the Murrah Federal Building and anyone who happened to be inside. With all the publicity about this heinous crime, is it any wonder that the very idea of a death penalty is not getting any debate?
Any death penalty conviction carries with it an automatic appeal, all the way to the Supreme Court. According to two studies from New York State and Florida, it is more than twice as expensive to sentence someone to die than it is to keep him or her in prison for the rest of their lives. Those same studies also found that the cost of a capital trial alone would be more than double the cost of a life sentence. But money shouldn't be the issue. Don't people deserve to die because they have taken the life of another?
Since 1900, there have been roughly four innocent people per year wrongly convicted of murder, and scores of these have received a sentence to die. A study in the Stanford Law Review concluded that there have been 350 capital convictions where it was later proven the convict had not committed the crime, 25 of those were executed. These convictions have not necessarily been a product of one jurisdiction's incompetence or overzealous prosecution, but have occurred from one end of the nation to the other. But perhaps sentencing guidelines are simply too loose. Maybe we need a tighter scale by which to judge whether a convicted murderer should be sentenced to die?
But it's not a simple decision of the jury whether a convicted murderer will die. Consider the amount of discretion in the criminal justice system as a whole. Even with judges and statutes that try to guide a jury's choice of sentence, there are still factors that figure in a capital sentence: a prosecutor's decision whether or not to prosecute for a capital or lesser crime, the jury's willingness to convict for second-degree murder rather than a capital crime, the degree of the defendant's sanity and even a decision from the governor for clemency. On the other hand, if we were to set down a strict set of standards, everyone who violated those standards would be sentenced to death. Then we would have dozens of people executed daily, something our society would be unwilling to do. But maybe these executions would act as a deterrent?
It turns out death penalty states as a whole do not have lower rates of criminal homicide than states without it. During the 1980s, death penalty states averaged an annual rate of 7.5 homicides per 100,000 people while non-death penalty states averaged a rate of 7.4.
Then there is the more general factor of race. More than 50 percent of those on death row right now in this country are black. For example, a study in Georgia found that person is 4.3 times more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim was white.
All this leads one to wonder why, in our supposedly equal democratic nation, we still employ a method of punishment that, in its historical roots, is contemporaneous with branding. It seems reasonable that until the consistency of human judgment can be demonstrated, capitol punishment should never be equated with justice.
--David O. Dabney
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