Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The cost of killing

Headline this morning on CNN: Study: States can't afford death penalty. Well, duh. Don't we all know this, deep down? That we're spending entirely too much money on a system that isn't very effective and doesn't leave us feeling all that satisfied? On a system that's arbitrary and very race and class-conscious. And on a system that we just can't seem to get right but we can't afford to get wrong. The death penalty proponents complain that the cost is inflated because we allow too many appeals, we let those damn defense attorneys file too many briefs. If we just cut off the appeals, the system would be streamlined, efficient, and so much cheaper, they argue. But, if we cut off the appeals, we run the much higher risk of getting it truly, irrevocably wrong.

That's really what this study is revealing: that we would rather not execute people than be wrong. And all too often, we just can't be sure. Five years after his murder, we're still arguing about Todd Willingham's guilt or innocence. Troy Davis has been on death row for 20 years and it's still just as consistent with the evidence that another man pulled the trigger. You're familiar with the list of all those cases where we got it wrong or we just can't be sure. We've let so many of them go home from the row, and often after 15 or 20 years.

So we listen to appeals because if we didn't, we might not have caught Paul House or some of the others. And most of us can't live with the idea of not catching the mistakes. Most of us can't accept the idea of getting it wrong. Because at heart, most of us are good and decent and really, really don't want to kill innocent people. We want to make sure we get it right, but once we do the deed, there's no way to correct it. As long as people remain squeamish about the prospect of executing innocent people (and I hope we remain that way forever), I don't see the death penalty truly becoming more efficient or cheaper.

Instead, I would suggest we can save ourselves a lot of money, as well as anxiety and worry about getting it wrong, by just abandoning the death penalty altogether. It's really the only way we can be sure we haven't killed an innocent person.


Jeff Gamso said...

Despite the story's suggestion, the truth is that much (if not most) of the difference in cost between LWOP and death comes before the sentence. Greater investigative costs for the police and prosecutors, multiple experts on both sides, extra capital counsel for the defense, additional time in jury selection, separate penalty trials.

All of that adds up to big bucks. And it's not because of innocence, it's because of the stakes.

Death is different in so many ways.

S said...

Of course that's true that the costs pre-trial and on direct appeal are exponentially higher. Death cases cost more at every stage. I referred to the extra measures in appeals simply because that's what the article focus was on, but the same argument applies to all the "extras" that go into capital cases.

I think the "stakes" necessarily include the prospect of innocence. The reason we pour so many resources into it, both pre-trial and post, is because the stakes are so high that we can't afford to get it wrong. Now some cynical people might say that the pre-trial costs are designed to make cases appeal-proof (as opposed to making sure we get the right guy), but my less cynical side thinks it's really to make people comfortable that we're getting it right. And, yes, I would agree that "getting it right" goes beyond the question of guilt or innocence for a lot of people, but not for everyone.

My point remains that there really is no way to reduce the costs and retain a death penalty system that most people are comfortable with.

Jeff Gamso said...

And I'm not really disagreeing with your ultimate point. Though I'm running with the story (thanks for finding it this morning) in a somewhat different direction.

S said...

Oh, I know. I might have fleshed-out the real costs of the death penalty in the direction you're going if I had waited to finish my post until after I'd had some coffee. :) I think there could be dozens of blog posts, all with very different focuses, coming out of this article.

Jeff Gamso said...

Probably so. By the time I got to it, I'd already spent a couple of hours on a conference call about a case I'm arguing in a few weeks, so I was ready to focus on something else.

Gideon said...

I like the blog revamp!

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