Saturday, June 7, 2014

Death Penalty. How or why?

“Let’s do it!” Those were Gary Gilmore’s final words before the last state-organized firing squad executed him in 1967.

“Let’s do it!” Those are the words of State Senator Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) who proposed returning to firing squads for executions.

Wyoming, like other states, is having a hard time finding the drugs necessary to mix a prisoner’s final cocktail. We saw what happened when Oklahoma experimented on an inmate last month. No one wants that repeated here. And there is a man on death row awaiting the outcome of his appeals. Legislators and the Department of Corrections feel a sense of urgency about finding an alternative.

One alternative apparently not on the table is the abolishment of the death penalty. There are good reasons to do so, but not good politics. It’s easier to tell the voters how to kill someone than it is to explain why the state ought not do so.

The death penalty poses math problems. Legislators are traditionally poor at math. There’s the financial burden passed along to taxpayers, nearly half of whom no longer support executions. Colorado did that math. Capital proceedings require six times more days in court and take much longer to resolve than life-without-parole cases.

Kansans learned that the price tag for death penalty defense costs averaged $395,762 per case, compared to $98,963 per case when the death penalty was not sought. California has amassed a 4 billion dollar tab for prosecution and defense costs, incarceration and appeals since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.

Then there’s the math problem surrounding how often the wrong person is convicted and, at times, executed. Experts believe at least one out of every 25 people put on death row is innocent. Take Todd Willingham. He was executed after a jury found him guilty of killing his three daughters. A Texas judge reviewed the execution, belatedly concluding Willingham was innocent.
No one has ever been able to calculate the cost of executing an innocent person.
Finally, the equation includes the costs of the racial and geographic disparities in the administration of the penalty.
A General Accounting Office report documented victim’s race heavily influences the likelihood of the accused being charged with capital murder and receiving the death penalty. In 82 percent of the studies they reviewed, those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks."
While a slim majority of Americans say they support the death penalty, 85% of all county attorneys have not had even one case resulting in the death penalty in the last 45 years. But other counties make up for that. A report from the Death Penalty Information Center documents that only 2% of US counties are responsible for more than half of the country's executions since 1976.
Despite the financial costs and the inability to administer the death penalty fairly and without bias, legislators are unwilling to end this morally debased form of punishment.
Now the legislature will debate how, not whether, to have the state kill people. It is a safe bet they’ll turn to firing squads. So I have some recommendations for them to consider.
Don’t use hired assassins. Why should low-paid state employees have to do your dirty work? Choose the members of each firing squad using the same pool of names used now to select a jury. Under Wyoming law, you cannot serve on a jury where the prosecutor is seeking the defendant’s execution if you’re opposed to the death penalty.
The firing squad authorization should have the same provision. If you’re opposed to state sponsored killings, you can’t serve on the jury and certainly should, therefore, be exempt from the trigger-pulling pool.
But all other citizens should be eligible. The names in the pool should be drawn only after every member of the legislature who votes for the bill and the governor who signs it have taken a turn at the trigger.
Then we’ll see quick they are to say, “Let’s do it!”.

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