Friday, January 22, 2010

The death penalty just won't die

This week, the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on a bill to abolish the death penalty.  The idea was first floated last year as a cost-savings measure.  The Kansas budget is in disastrous straits because our revenues have completely bottomed-out after a decade of reckless tax cuts and exemptions met up with the recession.  Last year, the bill made it out of committee, but then got sent to an advisory council for research.

I am not optimistic about this bill's chances.  Well, let me say I am hopeful (I'm always hopeful that abolition will win out in the end), but realistically, I know it's not likely to go anywhere.  One of the influential senators on this committee, the one who had a lot to do with last year's bill getting sent off to researchland, just today introduced a bill that would increase prison sentences for anyone convicted of selling illegal drugs to children or pregnant women.  So clearly that guy isn't interested in taking a sensible, cost-effective approach to crime; he's only interested in grandstanding.  And supporting the death penalty is tailor-made for those who want to grandstand.  In fact, this very afternoon, that senator was quoted as saying that "the bill is not going to make it through the process this year."

I attended the first day of hearings.  The testimony from abolition proponents went well enough with no obvious resistance from the senators.  Until the end, that is.  When one of the senators asked if there weren't some way to save money by imposing speedy trial and speedy appeal limits.  Doh.  Clearly this senator was thinking he'd rather give up due process than state-sponsored killing.  A professor who has studied the death penalty for 30 years gave a great answer, explaining that we don't impose the death penalty in DisneyWorld, so no, we can't fast pass people.  But I didn't sense that the answer was getting through.  Certainly the people on the street are eager to just get executions over with without all those pesky appeals, so why should state senators be any different?

Yesterday, the testimony was half in favor of abolition and half in opposition.  Speaking in favor of abolition was a father whose daughter was murdered in the Oklahoma City bombing.  He told the committee that Timothy McVeigh's execution did nothing to bring him any peace.  I'm sure people are respectful when he speaks, but I don't get the sense that his voice as the family member of a murder victim receives the type of response the angry, vengeful family members do.  This man is not alone, as a member of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.  But his comments to the committee simply did not get the airplay that the other side received.  Because once the other side started, public sympathy was definitely on their side.

Yesterday, we heard from a series of family members from two of the ugliest cases in Kansas memory, the kinds of cases that are always on the tip of people's tongues when we try to talk about the death penalty.  "Not until we kill those guys!" they cry.  "Hell, no, we can't abolish the death penalty.  We need to speed it up.  It's an outrage that those guys are still breathing."  Nobody seems to care much how family members on the other side feel because it simply isn't as sexy as bloodlust.

Once we get sucked into the sex appeal of bloodlust, the fight is over.  We can't seem to get the public over the idea that crime policy shouldn't be decided based on feelings and passions and the desire for revenge.  It should be based on what is truly in the best interests of society in terms of cost, safety, and crime prevention.  If we could ever get past the emotion to look at this thing rationally, we might get people to see that the death penalty is about the worst policy for promoting those interests.  Law enforcement will tell you that the death penalty is lowest on their list of ideas for fighting crime.  But people don't want to hear that because it just feels so darn good to fantasize about skinning killers and boiling them in oil and putting them to death as slowly and painfully as possible.  I don't get it because most of the comments on public message boards about the death penalty turn my stomach, but lots of people seem on board with that line of thinking.

And so the abolition bill is most likely dead before it even began.  Because no one wants to have a sensible, rational discussion of crime policy.  No one wants to acknowledge the fiscal reality that the death penalty is killing our budget for very little benefit.  We expend massive resources on a relatively small percentage of murder cases.  (Sorry, but we really can't kill all those who kill.  Pursuing that broad application of the death penalty would probably make the bank bailout look like a small expenditure.)  The death penalty bankrupted the Georgia public defender system because the state just had to seek death for Brian Nichols, the courthouse shooter, even though he offered to save millions of dollars by pleading to a life sentence.  I would hope the state regretted its choice to go for the jugular, and squander millions, once the jury came back with a life sentence.

Connecticut doesn't appear to have learned Georgia's lesson as just this week it is embarking on the capital trial to end all Connecticut capital trials.  The case is horrible, heinous, awful, all the trigger words you can think of, so the state just won't rest until the two killers are sentenced to death.  And the surviving family member has been vocal about his need to see the two monsters suffer the same fate his beloved wife and daughters did.  So they will begin a trial where the jury selection portion alone is expected to take several months, even though both defendants are willing to plead to life.  Millions more wasted when the goals of society, to incapacitate the perpetrators of this admittedly awful crime, could be achieved tomorrow.

And none of that even mentions the continuing racial disparity in imposition of death sentences.  Or the jurisdictional disparities.  Or the myriad other ways in which those who are sentenced to death are arbitrarily and capriciously separated out from those who are not.  But we'll never get to any of that until people can have a rational discussion instead of one driven by a passion for vengeance.  I wish I knew when that time would come.


DBB said...

Maybe you'd get politicians on board with abolition if you loudly suggest at every such hearing that the death penalty law, if it is allowed, should always include a new class of crimes: Any crime committed by a politician in office who votes to keep the death penalty is punished with death. Additionally, add to the list of crimes that any politician who lies or refuses to answer a direct question with a direct answer. Make the penalty a fine generally, but of course, that penalty will be death for the death advocates. Then see how they feel about a streamlined appeal process. Better yet, see how fast the death penalty is eliminated. Yeah, I know, I'm dreaming. I'm sick of these sick f*cks who get to office on the bloodlust of revenge.

Nance said...

I completely understand the people who, having lost a loved one to a murder, want that murderer to lose his or her life, too. But it doesn't make the government any better than the murderer, and why anyone doesn't see that is befuddling. The death penalty is merely the statutes stooping to the level of the basest of human instincts. Isn't LAW supposed to make us better than that?

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