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Debunking The Death Penalty

Andrew C. Thomas

The past month witnessed two incidents where the application of capital punishment came under fire. In his last days in office, Illinois Governor George Ryan emptied that state’s death row, commuting 167 prisoners’ sentences to life and pardoning 4 others. The bold move took many by surprise -- it went against the Republican party line, and without the support of Ryan’s aides or his wife. Ryan felt that the decision was more than one of conscience; he previously declared a moratorium on executions after 13 of a previous 25 Illinois death row inmates were exonerated.

There is no question that the move took chutzpah. It utterly enraged the families of the victims, who felt that they were entitled to some form of retribution for the losses of their loved ones. It enraged state prosecutors and judges whose jobs are to ensure justice is always served. And it apparently enraged John Ashcroft, who last week decided to force federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in 12 cases in New York and Connecticut. His motivation? He wanted to ensure that it was applied evenly across the country in federal cases.

Leave alone the fact for a minute that there are other ways to ensure this -- for example, lowering the number of people executed in other parts of the country. There are bigger issues at stake than Ashcroft’s thirst for blood or Ryan’s discomfort with Illinois’ death row difficulties. Others have used these events to tackle the big question as to whether capital punishment is justified in our society.

To put it bluntly, it’s not. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that for whatever reasons Gov. Ryan pulled his strings, history and society will show that he was unquestionably right.

People seem to pay attention to issues involving money, and there seems to be a belief that to execute a criminal will save them money. According to Amnesty International, executions in Florida cost $3.2 million, compared to a paltry $600,000 for a life sentence. While this is an extreme example, the figures are similar in New York, California, Maryland and other states where formal studies have been conducted. The increased cost is largely due to a very high level of legal scrutiny in capital cases, a level necessary to prevent wrongful conviction and sentencing.

So where is this money going? By insisting on more executions, John Ashcroft certainly thinks that this is money well spent. Does he think we’re paying for true justice? The families of the victims in Illinois do. They naturally believe that the act of execution will bring them closure after all the suffering they’ve endured. Do they deserve relief? No one could possibly deny it to them if it were possible. But does execution accomplish this? It’s a complicated question, and for many, the most important issue of why the death penalty is still active.

Consider that the urge to take a life to answer for another is simple revenge. To satisfy the bloodlust of a group of people is to condone the act of murder, no matter who pulls the trigger, flips the switch, or controls the syringe. The act of taking another life purely for the improvement of one’s mood cannot possibly close any wounds.

And it is now equally pointless to argue that execution is the only “permanent” solution, preventing that particular criminal from repeating their offense. Penitentiary technology has improved dramatically over time. The likelihood that a convicted murderer can escape prison in the conventional sense is microscopic. Only in the past, when standards of living were lower and guards were more susceptible to bribery, did the human factor contribute at the penitentiary level. Only in the past were we required to shackle prisoners to each other and force them to work long, hard hours in the sun in order to minimize their chances of escape. Life sentences without parole do remove convicts from society at large, with the only viable escape mechanism removed.

The idea of the death penalty as a deterrent has also been discredited. Statistically, death penalty application does not remotely lower murder rates. Canada and all of Europe have abolished the death penalty, and show significantly lower per capita murder rates than the United States. The idea doesn’t even hold within the country; a New York Times study in 2000 showed that individual states with the death penalty had murder rates of 48 to 101 percent higher than those without it, suggesting that the opposite effect: government-condoned executions encourage homicide.

But one fact remains clear; despite the best efforts of science, we have not yet reached the point where we can bring back the dead, nor will execution after execution bring us closer to this goal. We simply cannot trade the life of a murderer back for that of a victim, no matter how strongly we want it to happen. This idea, called the “closure myth” by psychologists, is well-documented yet evidently not well understood. And who can be blamed? If I were the family member of a victim, I would likely confuse the joy of revenge with the relief of closure as well. God knows that in that terrible position, I would need a system strong enough to force me not to consider this dangerous and self-destructive idea, which John Ashcroft and others sell like snake oil, masquerading it as a cure for one of the most virulent ills of the country.