Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wyoming should repeal the death penalty

The problem democracy has is that it depends more on emotion than facts. The founders worried politicians would pander so much to the lowest common denominator among the populace they’d be unable to make rational choices about important public policies.

Take the death penalty. Wyoming’s law putting criminals to death for certain crimes makes no sense. The law isn’t used, it’s costly to threaten, has no basis in research, and serves no legitimate purpose.

"Hang 'em high! It's that simple." When you want to know what voters think, go to the anonymous online comments. There they say what’s on their mind unencumbered by personal identification. “Set them on the stand and when they say 'GUILTY' shoot them right between the eyes.”

It doesn’t matter that the science proves the death penalty has no deterrent effect. Deterrence is one of the purposes our criminal justice system imposes penalties. Imposing a sentence in response to crime, we hope others will be deterred from committing the act.

The death penalty doesn’t deter. What purpose does it serve? Punishment? Anyone spending time around the penitentiary system knows a far greater punishment than death is life…life in prison with no hope of release.  Those who study these questions know life in prison is a far worse punishment than the death penalty because prisoners are made to suffer for the rest of their lives, knowing that there is no reprieve.

If the death penalty doesn’t deter and isn’t the severe punishment some think, why keep it on the books? Revenge. One of the anonymous commentators said, “As for the death penalty costing more than life in prison, the answer is simple...take away their rights for appeal. Once proven guilty of such a crime, KILL THEM and be done with them.”

Jesus’ teachings impose no barrier on this thinking even among many Christians. An “eye for an eye” they say. Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you ..." Jesus goes on to set a higher standard having to do with loving your enemies, praying for them and judging them not, lest you be judged. The Apostle Paul added, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”

But a lot of Jesus’ 21st Century followers don’t want to wait for a gracious, forgiving God. "I could care less what your fairy tale bible (sic) says,” wrote one.  “I did not get my ideals from any man-written piece of trash.”

Wyoming keeps the death penalty not because it works or even because it’s used. It’s not. Since Wyoming became a state, only 18 men have been killed by the state, all but two before 1965. There hasn’t been an execution since Mark Hopkinson in 1992. Gerry Spence, usually a defense lawyer, prosecuted him. Hopkinson made the mistake of being accused of killing a close friend of Spence. If Spence had been his defense counsel instead, Hopkinson would still be among the living. That says something about how unfairly lethal injections are administered in Wyoming.

Legitimate, rational and documented concerns about the risks of wrongful execution, the lack of fairness in the process, and the inability of capital punishment to accomplish its basic purpose are beginning to take hold. Seventeen states have now repealed this medieval form of retribution. Wyoming should join them.

But, even though it costs taxpayers millions to threaten and the money goes mostly to lawyers who often as not end up persuading an appeals court that the condemned person did not get a fair trial, the irrationally emotional arguments of those who care more about revenge than facts will sustain it in Wyoming and elsewhere for many more decades.

You’ve heard it said “An eye for an eye” but I say to you that makes no sense legally, economically, or theologically. Only politically.

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