I was reminded recently of Colorado’s option of the use of the death penalty when I visited the state maximum-security prison Supermax, in Canon City, Colorado. It was at Supermax where I saw a number of Death Row inmates, including Chuck E. Cheese murderer Nathan Dunlap.
I said, “reminded” because the death penalty is not a front-page issue in Colorado. This might be because since 1967, we have only had one execution, but had over 10,000 murders occur in that same time period.
Consequently, few issues in our country draw more debate, and more emotion, than the death penalty. But too often the claims of those opposed to the death penalty – including the fact that states are executing the innocent – aren’t examined or even challenged. When we go beyond the emotion and the criticisms and look at the facts, we see that the death penalty works and should be preserved.
One of the most powerful, and most disturbing, arguments against the death penalty is the possibility that an alleged innocent person could be executed. One widely quoted, though little analyzed, study concluded there is a 68 percent “error rate” in death penalty cases. Naturally, such a statistic brings out an emotional reaction with those people opposed to the death penalty who claim that the only way to guarantee that an innocent person is never executed is to abolish the death penalty altogether.
Moving beyond the emotion to the facts shows the shallowness of this argument. First, Professor Paul Cassell of the University of Utah showed that the celebrated 68 percent “error rate” is filled with error. He pointed out in The Wall Street Journal that the authors of the study were unable to find a single case where a provably innocent person was executed, despite looking at 23 years of capital cases. He also showed that the “error rate” includes defendants who have their convictions overturned on appeal, meaning that the system actually works.
In fact, the amount of time it takes to carry out a death sentence has grown from six years on death row in the mid-1980s to nearly 11 years today – showing that those convicted of murder are receiving more and more time to have their cases reviewed. In fact, few appeals are based on a claim that the convict didn’t commit the crime. There’s no rush to execution, again, for example, in Colorado where there has only been one person who has been executed since 1967.
America certainly isn’t executing innocent people; Americans are, unfortunately, merely losing their lives to murder, a death toll far greater than the relatively small number of persons executed for murder.
There is also a frequently cited claim the death penalty is unfairly used in greater numbers against minorities. But, again, the facts show that the percentage of minorities on death row almost exactly matches the percentage of violent crimes committed by minorities. And a thorough study in California showed that the race of the killer – or of the defendant – appeared to play no role in death penalty sentencing in that state.
Opponents often also assert the death penalty is not a deterrent. But there is evidence that the existence of the death penalty does in fact reduce the murder rate. Even more important is the fact that a murderer who receives the death penalty is permanently deterred from ever killing again.
Yet some still claim “life without parole” is an equal deterrent to the death penalty. Columnist Thomas Sowell pointed out how specious this argument is. Killers escape from prison and commit murder. They kill while on prison furloughs. And, as we learned in Colorado recently, they kill while in prison.
Prison guard Eric Autobee was brutally murdered by an inmate already in prison serving a life sentence. Autobee’s murderer was then sentenced to death. After all, if he hadn’t been sent to death row, this killer would have literally gotten away with murder since he was already in prison for life.
Currently there are almost 100 on death row who were already in prison when they murdered their victims; at least 37 others were prison escapees. Locking up murderers for life guarantees nothing, except for the possible murder of additional innocent victims.
I believe that rather than spending so much time with arguing about capital punishment, we should spend more time on the needs of victims’ families, who have suffered the loss of a loved one. Capital punishment elicits more public outrage, more media attention and more cries to protect the “innocent”, than do stories concerning the victims of murder.
We should instead save our sympathy and compassion for the victims, rather than the murderers.