SCOTUS is getting it wrong on the death penalty: 4-30-19
April 30, 2019
For many years, I have been against -- and written against in several venues -- the death penalty. It is vengeful, ineffective as a deterrent, not equitably applied, inordinately expensive and it reduces the state to the level of criminality. There's more wrong with it but that's a good start.
And in recent decades Americans have been less and less supportive of capital punishment. Indeed, 20 states now have outlawed it. One reason is that, as the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports, since 1973, more than 160 people have been released from death row because of evidence that they were innocent.
Still, the reality is that sometimes capital punishment kills innocent people. And that goes on our permanent record as Americans because the governments we elect allow that to happen.
With the pendulum swinging away from capital punishment, this opinion piece in The Atlantic raises exactly the right question:
Why has the post-Anthony Kennedy Supreme Court "introduced itself to the nation by strapping itself to the decaying corpse of the American death penalty"?
As Garrett Epps, professor of constitutional law at the University of Baltimore writes, "It is a curious choice. Capital punishment is a relic of a harsher time, now stumbling toward extinction, unpopular with both right and left. For these conservative justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh — to embrace it is like an American politician journeying to the Soviet Union in 1991 and saying, 'I have seen the future and it works!'”
Curious indeed. And deeply troubling.
One of the reasons that people who identify as politically conservative have been moving away from support for the death penalty is that it's so damn expensive. Here is some information from the DPIC on that subject:
• Oklahoma capital cases cost, on average, 3.2 times more than non-capital cases. (Study prepared by Peter A. Collins, Matthew J. Hickman, and Robert C. Boruchowitz, with research support by Alexa D. O’Brien, for the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, 2017.)
• Defense costs for death penalty trials in Kansas averaged about $400,000 per case, compared to $100,000 per case when the death penalty was not sought. (Kansas Judicial Council, 2014).
• A study in California revealed that the cost of the death penalty in the state has been over $4 billion since 1978. Study considered pre-trial and trial costs, costs of automatic appeals and state habeas corpus petitions, costs of federal habeas corpus appeals, and costs of incarceration on death row. (Alarcon & Mitchell, 2011).
• Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions Florida had carried out since 1976, that amounts to a cost of $24 million for each execution. (Palm Beach Post, January 4, 2000).
• The most comprehensive study in the country found that the death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment. The majority of those costs occur at the trial level. (Duke University, May 1993).
• In Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years. (Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1992).
But for me it's not (or not mostly) an economic question. It's a moral question. I don't believe the government should be killing people to teach people it's wrong to kill people. That's just perverse.
My hope is that the anti-death-penalty crowd will speak clearly and more often -- and maybe even louder -- to get the attention of the Supreme Court justices who seem to love capital punishment. By the way, five of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic. Maybe they should re-read what the church teaches on this subject. They can start with this page on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
On that page, along with much other information, they'll find this excellent thinking from the late Pope John Paul II: “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”
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AND IT COMES WELL AFTER TWO CORINTHIANS
There's a Bible-reading marathon going on this week in Elyria, Ohio. Not quite sure what good this does, but maybe it will educate the reporter who wrote the story about it that the name of the last book of the New Testament is Revelation, not Revelations. That would be progress.