Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Revenge turns sour

Quite to my surprise, my home state of Connecticut is in the process of eliminating its death penalty. (At this writing I believe the governor has yet to sign the legislation but he has said he will.)

It may not seem all that surprising that our relatively liberal state would join its neighbors in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in taking this step, but the timing is notable. We have recently endured the second of two death penalty trials in a notorious case that made national headlines. It was even the occasion for one of those New York Times in-depth, four full broadsheet page reports, specifically on the life and family of one of the murderers. (Joshua Komisarjevsky was adopted into a somewhat withered branch of a distinguished clan.)

The surviving victim, Dr. William Petit, whose wife and two daughters hideously tortured and murdered, along with extended family members, demanded the death penalty. Accordingly, prosecutors rejected offers from both perpetrators to plead guilty in exchange for life without parole. Connecticut law requires a trial of guilt, as well as punishment, in capital cases, so the defense could not simply stipulate to the facts. Two juries had to endure the trauma of viewing evidence too horrific to publish, while our community endured the dutiful recitation of its description every evening on the television news, in repeated episodes nearly a year apart. My mother would hit the mute button on he remote whenever the story appeared, as I suspect a lot of people did. Dr. Petit had to testify to his unimaginable experience, twice. No one felt any right to publicly question the ultimate penalty in this case while his ordeal continued.

Neither of these defendants is a poster boy for the injustice of the death penalty. They are both white, both career criminals, well into adulthood, sane and of normal or above average intelligence. And yet, after all this, the legislature chose this moment, to little or no observable public outcry.

Sam Harris discusses the currently most compelling intellectual argument against revenge here. A warning: he very matter-of-factly recites the events of this case. I doubt many legislators or voters are thinking about the illusion of free will as they consider this issue. However, both defendants seemed not so much evil as helpless and almost pathetic, even if it's hard to feel sorry for them. They seemed perplexed by their own actions, lost in their situation. Sure, they're psychopaths and they aren't apparently remorseful, except for the consequences to themselves. But killing them just seems pointless.

The law is not retroactive and they, and the other nine men on Connecticut's death row could, in principle, face execution some day. ("Death row" is metaphorical -- Connecticut doesn't have a dedicated housing unit for the condemned, they are scattered about.) But it takes decades for these cases to wend their way through the courts, and costs the taxpayers millions. By the time anyone is executed, the reasons for it have faded in memory.

Michael Ross, the only person put to death by the state of Connecticut since the Supreme Court allowed executions to go forward, ordered his lawyers to stop defending his life. The judge had to struggle with whether Ross could take it upon himself to embrace his own execution, but finally allowed it. Ross had specifically and horribly traumatized the rural area where I live. People talked about his death with sadness, but no real satisfaction.

So, in the end, I think our people just recognized that capital punishment isn't worth it, doesn't accomplish anything good, and only adds to the trauma and cost of already evil events. Why the folks in Texas and Alabama don't feel the same why, I'm not really sure.


robin andrea said...

If the defendants plead guilty and do not protest the sentence, do they still wend their way through the appeals court system?

Cervantes said...

As I understand it, you are not allowed to plead guilty and accept the death penalty under current CT law. Anyhow, that won't matter in a couple of days.

anonymous lawyer said...

I'm sorry, I did not see this one until now. This is my special issue, since I defend people on death row.

The movement across the country has been toward abolishing the death penalty. Life without the possibility of parole is plenty to ensure public safety, and it costs a lot less, too. (Counterintuitive, but true.) Most states now have far fewer death sentences than, say, 15 years ago -- partly because of costs, partly because of public concern about things like the reliability of evidence, and execution of innocents. A person who is innocent can't prove that once dead.

There is no evidence supporting the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. Nobody in the history of mankind has ever thought, "I'll just get life without parole instead of the death penalty, so it's totally worth it." On the other hand -- homicide rates tend to be higher in states that have the death penalty. There may be something about the idea of justified killings that helps people kill; we happen to be having a national debate right now about exactly that.

Robin, there has been a lot of litigation about people who are "volunteers" for execution, over many years and across the country. California has had two "volunteer" executions out of the 13 total executions; most killing states have had these issues come up. There are some people who commit "suicide by cop," and some who attempt "suicide by the courts."

There is more information on this and all other death penalty issues at the Death Penalty Information Center.

California will have an initiative on the ballot in November to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole. California has by far the largest death row in the nation, with over 720 inmates awaiting execution. I doubt most people could name more than 5 on that death row. It costs $184 million to pursue death, over and above the cost of life imprisonment and normal appeals. Kind of an insane amount of money to support vengeance.

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