Last week, Ronnie Lee Gardner made headlines by requesting death by firing squad. One of the punishment's that make Europeans say -- "they do that in America?" While it is interesting that the next Utah executed has chosen the least peaceful means of death offered by the Utah Penal Code, I find it more noteworthy to discuss the waste of time and money that the death penalty has become in the US.
One of the major recent arguments made by Ronnie Lee Gardner's attorney's is that it would be cruel and inhumane to execute him after he has been on death row for more than 25 years. While I disagree with them that execution would after 25 years be somehow inhumane, I do agree that 25 years is a long time to be on death row -- TOO LONG.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970's most death sentences take several years to multiple decades before the sentence is carried out. Attorney's for the accused file unlimited appeals and motions to keep the sentence from being carried out, and rack up thousands of dollars of expense that is ultimately shouldered by the taxpaying public. The days of the gallows being assembled in the town square shortly after the trial are gone.
The death penalty actually seems to be a rather liberating and (in a bizarre way) rewarding sentence; the condemned are isolated from the general prison population, they can be relatively sure that they will not die for several years, and they know how they are going to die. There is also a bit of notoriety involved for the condemned, for example Gary Gilmore is mentioned every time there is a execution scheduled in this state and the current condemned receives a fair amount of publicity before their sentence is carried out. The last Utah inmate to choose the firing squad did so for the very purpose of gaining some notoriety and causing embarrassment to the state of Utah.
The cost of keeping a man on death row is very expensive. Surprisingly (or not) it is now far more expensive to kill a murderer than to house that criminal in prison for the rest of his natural life. In a research paper by Mark Leeman at the University of Indiana, the author cited the average annual cost of housing a prisoner in California is 20,760 dollars a year while the cost for holding someone in death row is 22,400 dollars a year. The same author cited another paper that showed the average lifetime incarceration cost is 250,000 and 869,000 dollars for death row and general prison population inmates respectively, but that legal cost associated with death row inmates increased the lifetime incarceration cost for death row inmates by several thousands (and millions in some cases) of dollars more than the lifetime cost associated with general prison population inmates.
So, how do we best accomplish the requirements of Justice in regards to the perpetrators of heinous crimes like rape and murder? I submit that either the death penalty should be repealed permanently, or the appeals process for convicted murderers be seriously limited. Although there is something John Wayne-ish about sentencing these scum to die, the reality of a 10 to 20+ year waiting period before that occurs takes a fair amount of the justice out of the death penalty. With the lengthy appeals process and the sometimes immortalizing notoriety, and the millions of dollars that taxpayers expend for the legal costs associated with administering justice to these scoundrels it seems that the victims and the taxpaying public is the group who is really punished in a death row case.
I have no problem with killing killers, but I do have a problem with inefficiency and waste. I understand that some may argue that the appeals process helps save possibly erroneously condemned men from dying, and to that I would argue for the complete repeal of the death penalty. However, if we as a society are going to continue to embrace this kind of barbarism we need to be efficiently barbaric -- in the words of Mr Miagi "Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, squish just like grape."