Why Gov.-Elect Wolf Is Right About the Death Penalty

imageThe widow of a police officer who was murdered criticized both Governor-elect Tom Wolf and me for our opposition to the death penalty in a piece that appeared on PennLive last week.

Maureen Faulkner specifically asked why should a person who has taken the life of another “be allowed to keep their own life.” She has a unique standing to comment on this important issue of public policy: Obviously, the horrors she has endured give her a valuable perspective on many facets of the criminal justice system. She raised important points and deserves a response.

The death penalty, which has been eliminated throughout most of the civilized world and has recently been repealed in six states, including our neighbors New Jersey and Maryland, is an inappropriate punishment for many reasons.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for rejecting capital punishment is the inevitability of executing completely innocent people. Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to be reinstated, 149 people have been sent to death row and then released, after being fully exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted, most through DNA evidence. Some of these people came within hours of being executed.

Counting all crimes, more than 2,000 people were found to have been wrongly convicted in the past 23 years. It is clear that our criminal justice system is imperfect. Considering all of the innocent people who were convicted but then freed by DNA, it is extremely disturbing that DNA evidence is available in only about 15% of all murder cases.

Most murders are committed by guns, leaving no DNA evidence. Thus, considering the scores of death row inmates whose innocence was proven by DNA out of the 15% of cases where it is available, how many innocent people are among the 85% of cases in which DNA evidence is not available? Assuming that the proportion of innocent people is the same in both groups, we have sent to death row many hundreds of people who are innocent, but unable to prove that innocence.

Faulkner said that in no case it was “proved” that an innocent person has been executed. That is misleading.

First, in most cases, once a person is dead, people stop looking. There is generally no funding source for the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to continue investigating a case after the defendant has been executed.

Even if funding was available in a given case, in no forum a person’s innocence can be “proved.” The state does not conduct posthumous retrials of dead defendants. That said, in a number of cases there is very strong evidence that an innocent person was executed.

Another compelling reason to eliminate the death penalty is that we simply cannot afford it. Recent studies in California and Maryland have shown that a death-penalty case costs between $2 million and $3 million more to process, try and carry out than a non-capital murder case.

Given that we have processed hundreds of death penalty cases since reinstatement, simple math tells us that we are spending billions of dollars just to have a death penalty. Think of what that money could be used for instead: more effective forms of crime reduction, education, or even tax cuts.

Other reasons to eliminate the death penalty relate to:

  • the unfair, arbitrary, and racially disparate way it is administered;
  • all of the ancillary costs of litigating issues related to capital punishment, such as what chemicals may be used for the execution; and
  • the significant moral problems with giving a government, that many people do not think can deliver the mail efficiently, the power to decide when to kill its own citizens.

I can certainly understand Faulkner’s rage and desire for revenge against the man who killed her husband. I am sure I would feel the same way if I were ever in similar circumstances.

One of my heroes, the former New York governor, Mario Cuomo, who opposed the death penalty in all circumstances, was frequently asked what he would do if someone he cared about was murdered. I will paraphrase his typical answer:

I would pick up a baseball bat to bash the killer’s brains in myself. But before I reached him, what I hope I would do is ask myself if this would bring my loved-one back, and if I am acting in a way consistent with my religious and moral principles, and if I would want my family to see me acting this way. And I hope that before I got to the killer, I would put the baseball bat down.

That is what we as a society must do. We must put the baseball bat down.

Originally published in PennLive.

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