Dead Serious

The largest public execution in U.S. history took place in 1862, down in Mankato. Since the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota Indians, public sentiment against the death penalty had been building in Minnesota. Nineteenth-century politicians tried to pacify the public outrage not by banning the death penalty, but by carrying it out in relative secrecy. An 1889 law prohibited the public view of an execution, provided that executions be carried out only in the middle of the night, and prohibited newspapers from reporting any of the details.

The grotesque hanging of William Williams (and, ironically, the gruesome reporting of it by a St. Paul reporter who had sneaked into the execution) provided the final impetus which ultimately led to the abolition of Minnesota’s death penalty in 1911. Now, spurred again by media attention to the Dru Sjodin abduction, Governor Pawlenty wants to reinstate the ultimate punishment.

One could argue that Minnesota has already gone a long way toward imitating Texas with last year’s passage of the concealed carry law and emaciation of the public education budget, but, philosophical questions aside, reinstatement of the death penalty in Minnesota is a bad idea for many empirical reasons that should even appeal to conservatives with a natural bent for injecting first and asking questions later.

Here’s why we don’t want the death penalty here:

The very nature of the crimes that would be punished by death virtually ensures that mistakes will be made and innocent people will be convicted. As Pawlenty’s immediate reaction demonstrates, people who are elected to office, including sheriffs, county attorneys, and legislators, have to be seen to be doing something about terrible crimes. The impetus of the abduction and presumed murder of a young woman grows into an emotional momentum that cannot be resisted. The police must find the killer; the county attorney must ask for the death penalty; the jury can’t take the presumption of innocence seriously when the stakes are so high if they fail to convict. Even when an error is later uncovered, what are the chances any of the above will admit their mistake? Not high, especially when any elected official will be called “soft on crime” by his next opponent. What’s the result of this pressure? Nationally since 1973, 108 people have been sentenced to death for crimes they were later proven not to have committed.

Enforcement is uneven. For what crimes does one get the death penalty? Every state with the death penalty has its own list of criteria, but the one incontrovertible statistical correlation is that the race of the victim is what counts. A crime with a white victim is 350 percent more likely to draw the death penalty than one with a black victim. If you need an example of what could happen here, ask yourself if you recall then House Majority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Pawlenty calling for the death penalty for the killers of eleven-year-old Tyesha Edwards in 2002.

We wouldn’t be doing it for the victims. If the logic of the penal system is to provide for the victims, then all punishment is based on revenge. Instead, if we are to maintain the belief that it is society which metes out punishment, then society’s only logical reason to punish is to prevent further outrages by the convict. Life without parole in a maximum security facility serves that purpose. Moreover, a life sentence removes at least some of the reason for the nearly endless appeals that constantly raise the specter of the perpetrator being released. Closure for the victims is more likely when the process comes to a quicker end.

Isn’t it cheaper to kill them than house them for life? No. Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and California have all done studies that show the cost of a death penalty case exceeds the cost of a sentence of life without parole by an average of $2.3 million dollars, primarily because of the cost of the initial trial and subsequent appeals. In other words, Texas, which has executed 317 people since 1976, has spent over $600 million. Florida has spent $24 million for each of the 44 people it has executed since 1976.

It doesn’t deter crime. Does someone who commits a heinous murder first think of what’s going to happen to him if caught? Psychologists say no. In fact, most evidence points to a murderer exhibiting near-total disassociation from society and its rules. Second, let’s examine the statistics. Of the seventeen states which have murder rates higher than the national average, sixteen have the death penalty. Only Michigan does not. Indeed, some studies show that murders actually increase around the time that executions are carried out. During the time of frequent executions in California and New York, murder rates doubled. Rates receded again when executions were suspended. When Oklahoma reinstated the death penalty after a twenty-five-year moratorium, murders increased. Finally, as we look southward to Texas—by far the national leader in executions—we might envy their death-penalty and concealed-carry laws. But do we envy their murder rate, which is almost three times that of Minnesota?