While residents of some States considered issues such as gay marriage and recreational marijuana use on election day, the people of California were faced with Proposition 34 – an initiative to repeal the State’s death penalty. After all the votes were counted, the measure was defeated, with 53% of the people choosing to keep the death sentence on the books and over 700 inmates on death row. Quite frankly, I was surprised. I thought that, in this day and age, and especially in a State which tends toward a more liberal stance on most issues, repealing the death penalty was a given. While the margin for and against the death penalty was a mere 6%, showing a trend that the those in favor of the death penalty is on the decline, it also means that there’s still work to be done if this Country is going to stop the practice most other countries have already abandoned.
I didn’t always support the idea of repealing the death penalty. I’ve made my share of wisecracks about “firing up old sparky” and giving the bad guys the “hot shot”. In the past 15 or 20 years, however, I realized that those kinds of statements and a thirst of revenge weren’t very smart or funny and didn’t serve any purpose. The death penalty shouldn’t exist in a Country like the United States. It’s barbaric, costly and doesn’t solve a damn thing.
My personal epiphany began when I helped a colleague – a good, smart and dedicated attorney in Connecticut, who I’ll call T.R. for the purposes of this post – with a death penalty case. The client was Michael Ross, the State’s first serial killer, who had been on death row for nearly 20 years. I won’t go into the gruesome details of his crimes. You’re free to Google him and read all about what he did that landed him in the special cell, on that special prison block for 23 hours a day, 365 days a year. I didn’t like Michael. In fact, he and his crimes repulsed me. The trips I made to death row to meet with him were both frightening and sickening. I dreaded each and every visit, and couldn’t wait for them to be over so that I could get the hell out of there.
My colleague had been assigned to Michael’s case simply because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Michael wanted to fire his team of public defenders because, as he saw it, they weren’t representing his interests. What he wanted was for the State of Connecticut to make good on their sentence and execute him. He had grown tired of the endless appeals filed by his counsel, more often than not, against his wishes. He was frustrated, depressed and wanted to get the whole ordeal over with. T.R., at the order of a Judge in the New London Court, was appointed as Michael’s new attorney – a job that no one should have to have. The assignment meant that T.R. was to see to it that the murderer’s interests were served and that he would, finally, be put to death. Without going into some long-winded narrative as to how that process became a grueling, exhausting and war-like marathon, I’ll simply say that it came very close to destroying T.R.’s career and also came very close to driving everyone involved nearly insane. The end came when Michael was executed in 2005 – the first execution in Connecticut in 50 years.
The upside of all of this unnecessary drama is that Connecticut did finally repeal the death penalty this past April. It wasn’t accomplished through a referendum, but by a vote from the State legislature. It was a hard-fought battle, with the votes divided along party lines. Concessions were made, some in part to appease politicians, and others were out of respect for, and in response to the pro-death penalty pleas from Dr. William Petit and his supporters. If you’re unfamiliar with the case, Dr. Petit was the sole survivor of a home invasion by two repeat offenders who held the family hostage one night, raped and murdered Mrs. Petit and their two daughters and then burned their home to the ground. The two men convicted of the crime will remain on death row, along with nine others, despite the repeal of the death penalty. It wasn’t the best solution and it will mean even more years in appeals’ courts, but it’s a step in right direction.
I didn’t change my opinion about the death penalty because I feel sorry for these evil and reprehensible individuals. Quite the opposite. I think they should be punished for the rest of their lives. The death penalty doesn’t do that. It doesn’t do anything. It only means that taxpayers spend obscene amounts of money on appeals, attorneys, unique and costly facilities designed for death row inmates, as well as the guards whose only assignment is to watch over these killers. If you think it’s expensive to keep an average inmate in prison for the rest of his life, then you’d be gobsmacked by the cost to taxpayers for someone on death row. That notion that we don’t want to feed and care for someone for the rest of their life is naive and ill-informed. When it comes to that death row inmate, well, the cost is often two to three times that of the one doing life.
Had California voted to repeal their death penalty, taxpayers would have begun realizing a savings in the neighborhood of $137,000,000 a year. That’s not chump change, and it means that those dollars could have been used in much more productive ways throughout the criminal justice system. Prosecutors, public defenders and judges could be hired, alleviating backlogs, which has meant that those arrested for crimes languish in jail awaiting trial. It was a costly vote, at a time when California, and other States, can barely afford to keep up with the caseload and already over crowded jails and prisons.
When I first read the news that Connecticut had repealed the death penalty, I was shocked to find out that it only the 17th State, and the 5th in 5 years, to have done so. Thirty three other States still sentence the convicted to death, and executions happen on a weekly basis all around the country. Sometimes we’ve gotten it all wrong and people who did nothing at all are now dead. That problem doesn’t occur as often as it once did, due in large part to new forensic technology and DNA evidence testing. Eyewitness testimony is not taken as seriously as it once was – the truth being that witnesses are usually the least reliable source of evidence. What we think we saw may not really be what we saw. Witnessing a crime or being a victim of one is traumatic and can cloud our perceptions. The longer it takes a case to go to trial, the less reliable our memories become.
I don’t know why the United States clings to the death penalty as a form of punishment when so many other civilized nations have realized its ineffectiveness. Most of those other countries refuse to extradite criminals who have fled our borders if the death penalty is on the table. There is a very simple and common sense answer for those of us who want the worst of our society to never see the light of day. The sentence should be life without possibility of parole. Yes, it means that the defendant will go to trial, as he or she won’t be able to simply plead guilty to avoid the death penalty. It’s a small price to pay, though, in the interest of justice and the more costly alternative of 20 years in the appeals’ process. It will also save the people who serve on juries from having to make a decision that can’t be easy to live with. If you’ve ever watched a jury return a verdict or recommend death as a sentence than you know what I’m talking about. Many of them are left so distraught that they suffer a form of PTSD, becoming the additional victims of the crime and the criminals. The details and evidence presented during a murder trial are not for the feint of heart. Asking them to sentence someone to death is more than we should expect from our neighbors, friends, families and co-workers. It’s not right and it’s not fair.
If California puts this back on the ballot in the future, or if your own State does, think about your vote. Think about what this says about us, as people and as a nation. We’re better than this. Keeping a punishment that is in step with North Korea, China and Iran doesn’t speak well for us. The death penalty, by its very nature, is cruel and unusual punishment, and so is spending decades on death row. An inmate who prepares for his death, having been given a date for his execution, only to have a last minute stay, suffers those moments for nothing. Families of victims who have to testify for decades during the appeals’ process suffer the details and circumstances of the crime over and over. That’s just as cruel and punishing. We know better than to seek vengeance and we’ve evolved beyond being the blood-thirsty mob. We can seek and find the right sort of punishment for the worst crimes committed but we don’t need to resort to killing anyone to achieve it.