OPINION COLUMNS

Demise of the death penalty

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, April 29, 2017
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The death penalty is facing the firing squad all over the nation.

In the past 10 years, seven states have repealed their death penalty laws and four others have moratoriums in place, pending review of the death penalty system.

Louisiana is considering a bill to abolish the death penalty.

Joy Carrico

Oklahoma, one of the moratorium states, published the report from its Death Penalty Review Commission on Tuesday. In that report, the Commission unanimously recommended that the moratorium continue until major reforms are accomplished “due to the volume and seriousness of the flaws in Oklahoma’s capital punishment system.” Having reviewed the evidence, it reports that “the death penalty, even in Oklahoma, has not always been imposed and carried out fairly, consistently and humanely, as required by the federal and state constitutions.”

There are many problems with the death penalty system. The major issues are cost, accuracy and fairness. Also under scrutiny are the problems with the procedures for putting someone to death.

COST

Oklahoma determined that the death penalty costs three times what a life sentence costs, and they point out that their findings are not out of the ordinary. A study conducted in Texas in 1992 found the same thing. It costs three times as much to put someone to death as to imprison them for 40 years.

The actual numbers vary greatly by state, but we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars minimum per conviction in some cases to millions of dollars per conviction in others. Study after study shows that it costs the state, and thus the taxpayers, much, much more to sentence people to death rather than life without parole.

ACCURACY

Since 1973, 158 people have been exonerated and released from death row due to innocence. Others have been executed, only to have evidence come to light later that indicates they were innocent.

Since DNA analysis has become common, many cases have been shown to be miscarriages of justice, on death row and otherwise. Given the permanent nature of the punishment – you cannot un-dead someone – there is a need for higher assurance that the state is sentencing the right person.

FAIRNESS

Statistics reveal arbitrariness in who is sentenced to death. The Supreme Court declared that the death penalty should be reserved for the “worst of the worst” but that is not what happens.

A death sentence is more about where someone is prosecuted than how heinous the crime was that they committed. Only a few counties in Texas make up the majority of our death penalty sentences.

Incidentally, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, no person has been sentenced to death in Wise County since 1976. Ricky Lee Green, who was infamous for killing several people and had connection to Wise County, was tried in Tarrant County. He was executed in 1997.

A defendant is much more likely to be convicted if the victim is white than if the victim is a different race. If the victim is a white female, the odds of a death sentence shoot up even more.

Also, women commit 10 percent of the murders in the nation, but comprise less than 2 percent of death row inmates. So if you’re a woman, you’re far less likely to receive a death sentence than a man who committed a similar crime.

PROBLEMS WITH LETHAL INJECTION

All states carry out executions by lethal injection as their primary means. Some states have back-up methods, but they are rarely used.

However, the drugs are becoming harder and harder to get. Pharmaceutical manufacturers don’t want their drugs used in executions and have placed heavy restrictions on distribution. They claim that using their drugs to put people to death does not correspond to their commitment to promote life and health.

States, as a result, have had to come up with alternative drugs. One alternative Texas tried was to import the drugs they needed from a source in India, but it’s illegal to import the drug in question and the FDA prohibited it. Texas tried anyway and the FDA impounded the shipment. A recent ruling came down prohibiting Texas from using these illegally obtained drugs in their executions.

Texas has now turned to a one-drug protocol, administering a lethal dose of pentobarbital, which is often used by veterinarians. For its supply, the state looks to what’s called “compound pharmacies” to provide the drugs they need.

Compound pharmacies mix and/or alter drugs to create a medication tailored to the needs of an individual patient. They are not regulated by the FDA. This frees them from FDA interference. At the same time, because the drugs are not FDA-approved, there’s no assurance as to the drugs’ effectiveness or potency.

Other states have resorted to using a different drug in their injection procedures. Unfortunately, their choice, midazolam, is a sedative, not an anesthetic. So it doesn’t really knock out the patient, and there have been a number of botched executions where inmates have suffered horribly before death.

So, what are the states to do?

Some, like Texas, are fighting for their right to execute. Other states are getting rid of the problem by getting rid of the sentence. Still other states have executions on hold while they attempt to fix what’s broken.

ON THE DECLINE

In the meantime, fewer executions are being carried out, even in Texas. In 2000, 98 people were executed nationwide and in 2016, 20. In Texas, 40 people were executed in 2000 and seven in 2016.

Not only are fewer inmates being executed, but fewer death sentences are being handed down. In 1997, 317 people were sentenced to death while in 2016, 30 people were. Again, Texas is no exception.

According to the Oklahoma commission, public support for the death penalty in general is on the decline. As it becomes less and less used, it becomes less and less supported. Right now approval of the death penalty stands at about 49 percent, the lowest it has been in four decades.

Although death as punishment has been in existence since humans have been punishing each other, currently most of the western world does not have a death penalty.

Almost all of Europe has abolished it, as well as many other countries. There are a handful of countries that impose the death penalty for extraordinary crimes, but not for what is termed “ordinary crime,” which includes first degree murder. There are countries that have a death penalty, but haven’t used it in at least 10 years or have committed not to use it.

Then there are the countries that have a death penalty. The U.S., of course, is one. And we’re in with some interesting company. Among our fellow death penalty-imposing nations are North Korea, Iran, Iraq – most of the middle east, in fact – Egypt, India, Pakistan and Syria. To be fair, there are unalarming countries on that list too, such as Japan and Jamaica.

Recent events indicate to me that abolition of the death penalty is coming. And I don’t think it’s going to be the Supreme Court who strikes it down. In fact, the Supreme Court has expressly said that the sentence of death is constitutional. But just because something is constitutional doesn’t mean it’s what we should choose. International pressure, the flaws in the administration of the death penalty, the lack of a means to do it, increasing concern over its accuracy and fairness, decreasing public support for it, reform needed in investigation, prosecution, defense and carrying out the sentence, and especially its heavy price tag will eventally drive each death penalty state, even Texas, to determine that the sentence is more trouble than it’s worth.

We will all eventually decide to put it out of its misery.

Joy Carrico is a graphic artist for the Messenger.

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