Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Capital punishment: Walking the longest walk

The death penalty is all over the place this week. Yesterday SCOTUS heard oral arguments in a Kentucky case (two cases, actually) in which the petitioners argue that the three-drug cocktail used for lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. I'm going to get into this a bit more on Thursday. (I know, I know, you're on the edge of your seat waiting for that.)

Meanwhile, locally, Allentown Morning Call columnist Paul Carpenter has been all over the map this week with two columns that address crime and the ultimate punishment.

On Sunday, Carpenter argued that because PA's three strikes law could sentence someone who steals cookies to life without parole, then first degree homicide has to be something harsher than LWOP. Enter stage left the death penalty.
(Death penalty opponents) say life in prison is a more appropriate penalty. This is at a time when some nonviolent or minor crimes carry, in essence, that same penalty. Homeless hobo Kevin Weber got up to life for stealing chocolate chip cookies, under the provisions of California's crazy 1994 ''three-strikes'' law, which served as the model for Pennsylvania's three-strikes law a year later.

We tell the Gary Heidniks of our state's post-1999 society that sadistic and lethal crimes have about the same sanctions as cookie theft or having pot.

No wonder they run amok.

In his zeal for death, Carpenter completely brushes aside the absurdity of sending a homeless man to prison for life for stealing cookies. When it comes to crime and punishment, common sense is too often tossed out the window.

By 2012, Pennsylvania will build three new state prisons at a cost of $200-$300 million each and $50 million annually to maintain. According to one state senator, the Department of Corrections estimates we will need to build a prison per year for the foreseeable future to keep up with the increase in the state prison population. Meanwhile, we're sending a homeless man to prison for life for stealing cookies. This is madness.

Two days later, Carpenter returned to acknowledge misinformation in his Jan 6 column. We do not sentence 3200 people per year nationwide to death. That's the total nationwide death row population. In fact, last year 110 people were sentenced to death, the lowest total since SCOTUS reinstated the DP in 1976.

Meanwhile, at Huffington Post, John Holdridge and Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project deftly swept aside the folly of the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent to homicide.
Imagine the moments leading up to a murder. Are we to believe a person about to commit a homicide would consider whether or not his state has a death penalty as opposed to just life imprisonment without the possibility of release? Common sense suggests that lucid, rational calculations about capital punishment statutes are not among the things that would cross the mind of a would-be murderer.

But the best piece I've seen this week is in Time magazine. David von Drehle has Death Penalty Walking:
In a perfect world, perhaps, the government wouldn't wait 30 years and several hundred executions to determine whether an execution method makes sense. But the world of capital punishment has never been that sort of place. This weighty moral issue, expressive of some of our society's deeply held values, involves a lot of winging it. In 1990, for instance, a sponge used in the headpiece of Florida's electric chair wore out. There's no factory or parts catalog for execution devices, so the prison sent a guy to pick up a sponge at the store. Problem was, he bought a synthetic sponge instead of a genuine sea sponge, and when Jesse Tafero was strapped in, his head caught fire. Florida officials diagnosed the problem afterward by testing a similar sponge in a toaster.

In comparison, lethal injection sounds more scientific--almost therapeutic--but its history is as improvised as that supermarket sponge. In 1977 an Oklahoma lawmaker sketched the protocol on a notepad with the help of a medical examiner. More research has gone into the proper way to brush your teeth. But the idea caught on, and now, years later, more than half the states have adopted some version of the Oklahoma cocktail. Judges in courts across the country are scratching their head over the odd concoction, and the Supreme Court has effectively halted all executions to untangle a mess of belated questions: How much risk of torture is too much? How many safeguards are necessary? What makes a punishment cruel and unusual?

Decades of well-intentioned brainstorms like this one--legal, medical, procedural, political--have accumulated into one thoroughly screwed-up system. Any other government program that delivered 3% of what it promised--while costing millions of dollars more than the alternative--would be a scandal, but the death penalty is different. In its ambiguity, complexity and excess, the system expresses a lot about who we are as a nation. We're of mixed minds, and most of us would rather not spend a lot of time thinking about killing. A majority of Americans support the idea of capital punishment--although fewer are for it if given a choice of life without parole. At the same time, a substantial number in a recent poll said they could not serve on a death-penalty jury.

Andy in Harrisburg



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