Opinion / The Big Picture

Death to the Death Penalty! But Only After Many, Many Years of Appeals

If America entered a talent show, its act would likely involve homicide. Between bloody conflicts abroad, long-range drone strikes and the globalization of the Big Mac, forget baseball; killing people is America’s national pastime. So it’s ironic that a nation that is so talented in applying lethal force could be so helplessly inept at killing its own citizens.

Recent news contains no shortage of controversy surrounding the American justice system’s mishandling of their most grave penalty. Recently, the manufacturer of the chemical Pentobarbital restricted states’ access to the drug in protest of its use for lethal injections. The new restriction caused shortages country wide, sending states scrambling.

The search for a back-up formula led the state of Ohio to try a new, two-drug combination on January 16th, during the execution of Dennis McGuire. The convicted murderer was reported to have “snorted, gasped and struggled” while taking longer than the expected time to expire.

In the fallout of this event, the lawyers of death row inmates are questioning the guarantee that their clients’ death will not be “cruel and unusual” if executed by a new concoction. This month, Louisiana and Ohio have stayed executions in order to review the appropriateness of these new methods. The Florida Supreme Court has also ordered a hearing before their next execution in February.

The courts’ decision to stay these executions, further prolonging the trials, is far from unusual. The process through which states issue death sentences is lengthy and inefficient. In California, for example, it takes an average of twenty years to finalize a fatal injection. An assessment of costs by Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula Mitchell found that this process has cost the state four billion dollars since 1978. That’s four billion — with a “B” — that we spend on killing people to show everyone else that killing people is wrong.

Alarcon and Mitchell’s report goes on to explain that between 1983 and 2006, death penalty trials cost an average of about one million dollars more than the cost of the average case. This is due to the significant expenses constitutionally required to sentence a criminal to death. Trials involving capital punishment require more lawyers, investigators and expert witnesses. They involve far more appeals than an average trial and meticulous sentencing reviews. Throughout the process, taxpayer dollars trickle away.

Even those who defend lethal punishment admit that the current process is deeply flawed. Last Thursday, three former California governors announced a proposed ballot initiative that would limit the number of appeals available to death row inmates. The proposed legislation would be more, ahem, appealing if the judiciary’s ability to avoid executing innocent citizens were indisputable. However, even using today’s glacially paced method, states make mistakes. The Death Penalty Information Center, an admittedly anti-death penalty research organization, keeps a running list of exonerations from death row. Since 1973, the list displays 143 names.

While critics are quick to point out that some of the criminals on the list were exonerated because of technicalities, the fact remains that there were numerous cases of innocent American citizens being unfairly sentenced to death. Given this information, the ex-governors’ proposal to shorten the time courts have to catch these mistakes is far from compelling. Abandoning the practice of capital punishment entirely is the only pertinent solution.

Supporters of the death penalty often turn to the “deterrence argument” when faced with the fiscal realities of state-funded executions. They opine that if an individual knows that their crimes could be punished by death, they are more likely to be discouraged from committing them in the first place. Statistical evidence for this claim is murky at best.

In 2012, a paper published by the Journal of Quantitative Criminology determined that the studies claiming to prove the deterrence of capital punishment suffered, “from basic methodological problems: weak instruments, questionable exclusion restrictions, failure to control for obvious factors, and incorrect calculation.” Furthermore, the same report stated that there are likely no research tools capable of legitimizing a study based so heavily on inference and so potentially influenced by unobserved confounders.

The deterrence argument assumes that a criminal takes time to consider the consequences before committing a capital offense. This thinking ignores the typical circumstances surrounding such a serious crime. When a person commits an atrocity as grave as murder, their mind is almost always clouded by hatred, intoxication or mental illness.

Experts agree that a deeply troubled mind does not seem likely to weigh the risks and benefits of their actions. In consecutive 2008 and 2009 national surveys of police chiefs, the officials ranked the death penalty last when asked to name the area most important to reducing violent crime. The same study reported that 69 percent of the police chiefs found the statement, “Murderers think about the range of possible punishments before committing homicides” to be inaccurate. In the world of academia, a survey by the University of Colorado found an overwhelming 88 percent of the nation’s leading criminologists did not believe capital punishment was an effective deterrent.

Ultimately, a pragmatic assessment of the costs associated with killing criminals finds them unacceptable. The process as it stands takes far too long and is highly cost-inefficient, but the risks of wrongfully sentencing an innocent citizen to death are too high to shorten the appellate procedure. Furthermore, it is impossible to prove that enforcing capital punishment reduces violent crime — and common sense implies that this is not the case. It is time to recognize that we only allow our worst criminals to hurt us more when we put them to death.

Matthew Meyers disagrees wholeheartedly with the phrase “Ooh kill ‘em!”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 3, 2014 print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are primarily submitted by students.
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2 Comments

  1. A great rehashing of an argument we’ve heard a million times over. Instead of focusing purely on the financials which most people know, why not attack the issue at its moral weak point- the fact that the death penalty is wrong in essence. The government has no right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. No judge should deem himself God and write off someone’s life with the swing of a gavel. This is one human right that should be unassailable, one that has not been relinquished and should not be relinquished to society.

    • Unfortunately there is a long and well documented history in the U.S. Setting legal precedent for inclusion and utilization of the death penalty, starting with common law. Even “life in prison” was, itself a death sentence originally since prisoners were put in the holds of galleys as slaves and died there.

      If we are to revisit our Constitution, Federal Laws, and State laws as well this will be an enormous undertaking. We will need to redefine ourselves in regards to war, abortion, embryo selection and beyond.

      Don’t misunderstand me, I am against the use of the death penalty as punishment for any crime. However, unless we decide to do as Moses did and take all the citizens out in the desert for forty years (so that the old ones and the memories of the rest of them is obliterated), this will require a sea change. Something we are not very good at, in my recollection…..

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