Time Now To End Death Penalty
With the Cheshire trials over, let's stop sending people to death row
Dr. William Petit and his sister, Johanna Chapman, speak outside the New Haven Courthouse on Friday after jurors decided on the death penalty for Cheshire home invasion killer Joshua Komisarjevsky, 31. (Michael McAndrews, Hartford Courant / December 9, 2011)
The case, however, is far from over. There'll be endless reviews and appeals, to the point where both men are more likely to die of old age before they are executed. Did these agonizing and expensive trials accomplish anything?
The two men were willing to plead to sentences of life in prison without possibility of parole. Because of the lengthy delays built into Connecticut's death penalty, they will most likely serve life without parole. The trial becomes just a ritual in Connecticut death penalty cases, a kabuki play about justice instead of actual justice.
Streamline It Or End It?
Some say the answer is to streamline the death penalty, to make it work faster. But there is a serious question of whether the system can be made to move more quickly, to any meaningful degree. When the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, it encouraged automatic review and appeal of both the conviction and the sentence. This must happen, lest society make an irreversible mistake. It invariably takes time.
We believe the better answer is to repeal the death penalty as immoral and bad public policy. Speaking at Wesleyan University last year, Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel, who lost his parents and sister in the Holocaust, said moral societies should not be the agents of death. We aspire to be a moral society.
When the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, it was with the hope that it could be administered impartially. There is much evidence that this hope has not been met.
Studies in Maryland, North Carolina and New Jersey in the past decade, cited by the Death Penalty Information Project, found unsettling evidence that killers of white victims are more likely to be sentenced to death than killers of nonwhite victims.
Also, criminal trials are not foolproof: 139 inmates have been released from death row since the mid-1970s because of evidence of their innocence — and for a few others, the evidence came too late.
In addition, the death penalty is hugely expensive. Studies across the country show the costs of trials, appeals and death rows are much higher than simple life without parole, For example, a New Jersey report concluded that the state's death penalty had cost taxpayers $253 million from 1983 to 2005 over the costs that would have been incurred had the state utilized a sentence of life without parole instead. The state abolished the death penalty in 2007.
Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that insane or mentally retarded people cannot be executed. This opens another gray area. Can we tell with certainty when a person is mentally competent enough to be killed?
Perhaps all of these objections could be laid aside if the death penalty brought relief or closure to the families of victims. But earlier this year more than two dozen family members of murder victims came to the Capitol to support a bill that would have repealed the death penalty, and 76 relatives signed a letter backing the bill. As one said, the process results in notoriety for the murderer and "years of suffering and uncertainty for the families left behind.'' The bill failed to pass.
In the end, the death penalty is about revenge, an understandable response to the killing of a loved one. But sometimes the state has to stand between the raw emotion of the victim's loved ones and greater good of society. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber so concluded two weeks ago when he announced he was halting all future executions. He said the death penalty "is morally wrong and unjustly administered."
That's now the philosophy in 16 states and 133 countries, and should be in Connecticut as well. The Cheshire trials are over. Repeal the death penalty.