Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The company you keep

What does China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States have in common? According to Amnesty International, these five countries lead the world in use of the death penalty with China far outpacing the other four, combined.

The reason for my research into this topic was Monday's lead article in the Inquirer which detailed a diatribe by Pennsylvania's Chief Justice Ronald Castille concerning the federal defense attorneys who recently filed a motion to stay the execution of a death row inmate. Justice Castille concluded that the exhaustive efforts being put forth by these attorneys to keep their client alive were politically motivated and represented a concerted effort on their part to sabotage the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

I sent the following letter to the Inquirer that evening.

To the editor:

Chief Justice Castille is right to be frustrated over the seemingly endless motions and appeals that occur with any ongoing death penalty case. But his anger is misdirected. Those federal defense attorneys that he accuses of engaging in "the zealous pursuit.. to impede and sabotage the death penalty" do so to guarantee their client's being treated fairly; I am sure he would expect the same dedication to duty of those on the prosecution side. Does he think these attorneys should just give up? In light of the numerous examples of death penalty convictions being overthrown due to subsequent DNA evidence, I think their continued doggedness is warranted.

The Chief Justice should be directing his anger at politicians who use support of capital punishment to project a "tough on crime" mentality to voters, the district attorneys who pursue the death penalty, and the Pennsylvania legislatures who have failed to pass a bill banning the death penalty in our state.

The death penalty has been proven over and over again to be ineffective in deterring capital crimes. That is why 15 states plus the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty while two more (including New Jersey) have placed a moratorium on executions. Not to mention the 95 countries worldwide including virtually all of Europe which have ceased its use.

And then there is the expense. Seeking a death penalty conviction increases the cost of trial tenfold, relieving a disproportionate amount of money from already strapped city, county and state budgets while resulting in very few actual executions; only three in PA since 1976, none since 1999. Seeking life sentences instead produces the same effective result - the removal of dangerous criminals from the streets - while freeing up money that an be used much more efficiently in the fight against crime.


So, in this case, the United States shares this dubious characteristic with four of the most repressive regimes in the world, two of which are 2/3 of the "axis of evil". I imagine that we might be more aggressive in decrying the Saudi Arabian government if it wasn't for oil and the Chinese government if it wasn't for corporate America's need for cheap labor but that is grist for another blog.

Of course, I know there is a big distinction between our use of the death penalty as part of our judicial system and the use of the death penalty in those other countries for political dissidents as well as criminals. Yet, the fact remains that 95 countries in the world do not have a death penalty, including virtually all of the western world of which we claim the most similarity. We are the only NATO country still using the death penalty.

More data to consider.

Pennsylvania has 222 death row inmates (fourth highest state total), over 100 of them placed there during Lynn Abraham's tenure as district attorney of Philadelphia. As I mentioned in the letter, only 3 executions have occurred in PA since 1976, none since
1999. During that time 22 death row inmates died of natural causes.

Governor Ed Rendell signed over 100 death row warrants during his two terms as governor, despite the fact that he was aware of its lack of use. (See politicians who need to appear to be tough on crime in my letter above).

Since 1976 there have been 1251 executions in the US with Texas far out in the lead with 467 of them (about 37%). Of the 34 states which have executed criminals since 1976, Texas has put to death more than the totals of 29 of those 34 states combined. Makes you wonder if Texas has more capital crimes, more evil people or an easier path from conviction to execution.

Actual death sentences in the United States has steadily fallen since 1994 so that by 2009 it was about 1/3 of the number of 1994 (from 313 to 112).

138 death row exonerations have occurred since 1973. Remember, these are people who were convicted, sentenced to die and later found to be innocent and released. Partly as the result of research, motions and appeals by defense attorneys just like those that Chief Justice Castille railed against.

As of deterrence, there is a huge difference between number of executions in the south compared to the other regions of the US, but very little difference between murder rates. In fact, the south has one of the higher regional murder rates.

Finally, the cost is astronomical. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to prosecute and house the few thousand death row inmates. Again, money that could have been spent to combat crime.

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