Death Sentence

Scientific American LogoI have a Big Stack of Old Magazines (BSOM) that I’m going through, glancing at every page to see if I want to read that particular article, before I dispose of the magazine. Some are as old as 24 years. Maybe older. Occasionally an old article provides info for a good post. One magazine from my BSOM happened to be a Scientific American from February, 2001. Scientific American is my favorite magazine, so there’ll probably be more posts here based on a its articles (either old or current).

This edition has a short item titled Death Defying that I found interesting. And educational. (Educational is always interesting if its done right.)

For prisoners on Death Row in the United States, the average time between sentencing and execution was 10.6 years. During that time, upon appeal, 68 percent were found to have serious errors in their trials, and five percent were actually determined to be innocent and to have been convicted and sentenced to death in error.

That’s terrible! And I’d be willing to bet half my old magazines that it still isn’t any better.

Both kidnapping and treason carry death penalties under federal law, but the federal government almost never actually executes anybody. It’s almost always the states. SOME states, I should say.

At least 23 innocent people have been executed since 1900. (Probably all men. Nearly all death row prisoners are men. But it doesn’t say here). Too late it was found out they were innocent.

Surveys show 67 percent of all law enforcement officers do NOT believe the death penalty reduces the homicide rate. Apparently, they’re right. The homicide rate per 100,000 people in death penalty states averages 9.3. In non-death penalty states, it is actually slightly better: 9.

Many excuses for the death penalty have been promoted, but most don’t stand up to scrutiny. For instance, it’s often claimed it saves a lot of money to execute a prisoner rather than to keep him locked up for life. In Los Angeles County (the only place for which I have the info, the average cost of a murder trial is $625,000. Death penalty cases average $1,900,000. That $1,275,000 difference should support a man in prison for quite a while. As if that were a civilized proposition to begin with.

The Bible promotes death for a plethora of crimes. Thankfully, we are ruled by the Constitution of the United States. Not by the Bible.

Actually, in principle, I’m in favor of the death penalty for some crimes. It’s those 23 innocent men (and probably more) that bother me. Also, the almost unbelievable number of men waiting for the needle who have been proved not guilty by DNA evidence, which was not available when they were convicted. It came in time for a few of them. (Yes, I am aware that I called it an “almost unbelievable number” and then concluded it was only “a few.” The different contexts make this appropriate.) How many more will be found not guilty whenever we get some other new technology that we don’t have now?

Regretfully, my own State of Texas has long been the front-runner in death penalty cases and executions. Part of this, of course, is because we have a lot of people, and therefore we have a lot of crime. But that’s not all of it. Too many of us (including our current and last governors, Perry and Bush respectively) just seem to think some people need to die. Too many people.

Almost certainly, Texas has executed several innocent men (though I don’t have the figures). Our state Court of Criminal Appeals has a well deserved reputation for negligence in this area, and that’s a crime.

So what’s the solution? I can’t say that I know the ultimate solution. As I mentioned before, in principle I am in favor of the death penalty. But until we get better — A LOT BETTER — at determining who is actually guilty and who is not guilty, we need to declare a moratorium on executions nation-wide. (A few states have already done this. Or abolished the death penalty altogether.) If we ever get really good at determining who is guilty, we can reconsider the alternatives then.

Besides all this, we should release most prisoners in this country immediately. There are plenty of alternatives for non-violent crimes. But we’ll save that topic for another day.

Resources: Scientific American, February 2001, Death Defying, p. 28

 

 

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