Executions are legal in 59 countries; the United States is one of them. Executions are legal in 36 states, one of which is Indiana. It's pointless to debate the morality of the death penalty: arguments about personal belief and individual opinion are unresolvable through discussion. Instead, it makes sense to assess the merits of the death penalty in terms of public policy. Is capital punishment sound public policy?
The death penalty is expensive. According to Chris Hitz-Bradley, an Indianapolis attorney and president of the Indiana Information Center to Abolish Capital Punishment (IICACP), writing in the Indiana Abolitionist, "The cost of just the initial trial and appeal of a capital case [in Indiana] is estimated at $300,000 to $500,000. The state's economists" he goes on to say, "have estimated that 'the cost of this first phase of a capital case is 1/3 more than a case of life without parole.'"
Hitz-Bradley also points out, "The cumulative cost of all the various phases of a death penalty case can easily mount to" $1-2 million. The reason is the extensive appeals process in Indiana. Besides the initial appeal and request for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a case, the two remaining phases of a capital trial -- state post-conviction and federal habeus corpus -- add to the costs.
"Almost everyone on death row is poor."
In one capital case in Indiana, just the transcript of the original trial needed during the appeal process cost $92,000. No matter what county they reside in, Hoosiers end up paying for a huge amount of the costs of a death penalty case. In the Hoosier state and the nation as a whole, it costs less to maintain inmates in prison for whole lifetimes than it does to execute them.
The death penalty is racist. A Maryland commission studying the death penalty in that state found that although two-thirds of murder victims in Maryland are African Americans, all five people the state has executed in the last 30 years lost their lives for killing whites. The five people currently on death row in Maryland all victimized whites. According to the Washington Post, "More prosecutors are likely to seek execution, and juries to sentence people to death row, when whites are killed."
As Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says of capital cases, "There are too many incidences of people of color, both defendants and victims, being treated more harshly, and dealt with as if they were expendable."
The death penalty is elitist. Almost everyone on death row is poor. The poor cannot afford private attorneys and have to rely on public defenders, who often are not well-trained or experienced in capital cases. As Kerry Max Cook noted after spending two decades on death row in Texas for a crime he didn't commit, "[I]t's not necessarily the color of a person's skin that determines who gets the death penalty and who doesn't; it's the color of money. It's wealth that determines who gets Saks Fifth Avenue justice and who suffers Wal-Mart justice."
"The death penalty system is inherently arbitrary from its very beginning."
- Chris Hitz-Bradley
Innocent people have been executed and will continue to be. The absence of DNA evidence, which is scientific and conclusive, in the majority of homicide cases creates the possibility of executing the innocent. Seven years ago U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor wrote in the Boston Globe after presiding over the first death penalty case in Massachusetts in several decades, "The experience left me with one unavoidable conclusion: that a legal regime relying on the death penalty will inevitably execute innocent people. ... Mistakes will be made because it is simply not possible to do something this difficult perfectly, all the time. Any honest proponent of capital punishment must face this fact."
Geographic discrepancies cause inherent randomness and bias in the application of the death penalty. Prosecutors in some geographic areas are more likely to seek a death sentence than are those in other areas within the same state. As Hitz-Bradley points out, "The death penalty system is inherently arbitrary from its very beginning. The decision to request the death penalty is completely in the hands of one person: the elected prosecutor for the county. Each prosecutor brings a different standard to the job; each prosecutor views the death penalty differently."
A murder conviction usually depends heavily upon the testimony of a codefendant or cell mate. In both cases that person receives a reduced sentence for testifying against the person the prosecutor determines is the most responsible for the murder. Under the circumstances, the temptation to give false testimony is strong.
Contrary to what some death penalty advocates claim, there is no evidence that the threat of the death penalty deters anyone from committing murder. Capital punishment doesn't bring "closure" to victims' families, either: the appeals process can drag on for more than 20 years.
Plainly, the death penalty is unsound public policy, but progress is being made. A life sentence absolutely without parole and until the convicted dies is becoming a new option, and juries are increasingly choosing it when it's available. As Hitz-Bradley points out, "A life sentence without parole ensures the safety of our families and communities. ... It would make more sense ... if money that would be spent seeking the death penalty were used to provide counseling and other assistance to victims' families."
"Innocent people have been executed and will continue to be."
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that executions could resume, more than 130 people have been freed from death row because they didn't commit the crimes they were scheduled to die for. What's more, keeping inmates alive makes it possible to exonerate them if new evidence surfaces, DNA or otherwise, to prove their innocence. In Indiana, 61 percent of sentences in capital cases have been reversed.
More good news is that public support for the death penalty in the United States has declined in recent years. On Dec. 11, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) released a report stating that 37 people were executed in 2008, the lowest number in 14 years, which coincides with a decrease in juries dictating death sentences.
The report estimates that 111 people will receive a death sentence this year, the lowest number since 1976. Only 37 people were executed in 2008, as opposed to 98 in 1999.
Furthermore, the number of death sentences in the country has fallen since the mid-1990s, when states began passing legislation making it easier for prosecutors to opt for life in prison without parole instead of death. The decline stems, in part, from an unofficial Supreme Court moratorium on executions in January-April of this year and from the nation's economic problems.
According to Richard Dieter, executive director of DPIC, "Courts, legislatures and the public are increasingly skeptical about the death penalty, whether those concerns are based on innocence, inadequate legal representation, costs, or a general feeling that the system isn't fair or accurate."
"More prosecutors are likely to seek execution, and juries to sentence people to death row, when whites are killed."
- Washington Post
We can see the trend in Indiana, where the death penalty is gradually being "chipped away," in the words of Monroe County judge Theresa Harper.
Jessie Cook, a capital attorney with an office in Terre Haute, attributes this trend to two phenomena. One is the innocence movement, which has brought to light the conviction of people who have been sentenced to death for crimes they didn't commit. The exonerations that have resulted have dampened state prosecutors' enthusiasm for seeking death sentences. The other phenomenon is costs. The Indiana Supreme Court has issued Rule 24, which sets the standard for death penalty cases in the state.
Rule 24 stipulates that a death penalty case must include support services for the defense, among them expert witnesses -- psychologists, pathologists, ballistic experts and so forth. It requires special training and experience for defense and appellate attorneys, and it also mandates investigative support services for the defense attorneys in the form of people who check facts, uncover mitigating circumstances and the like. All of that costs money, and counties just don't have the funds, especially today.
Life without parole has its drawbacks. Warehousing people for the rest of their lives doesn't represent a lot of progress beyond eliminating capital punishment. Europeans assume that every criminal can be rehabilitated and rejoin society. Life sentences don't exist in Europe. But that's another story.
The IICACP and its member organizations, including the Bloomington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, are grassroots organizations that strive to abolish the death penalty in Indiana. Indiana state legislators are not poised to repeal the death penalty in the near future, but convincing them to do so is one of the ongoing projects of citizens' abolitionist organizations.
In 2007 New Jersey became the latest state to abolish the death penalty. It would be sound policy for Indiana to follow suit without delay.
Linda Greene is a local activist and writer who can be reached at .