The Death Trap

Last week, in response to the abduction of 22-year-old college student Dru Sjodin and the subsequent arrest of a serial rapist, Governor Tim Pawlenty announced that he intended to push for the reinstatement of the death penalty. Never mind that instituting capital punishment would do nothing to stem the plague of sex crimes that the governor professes to be worried about. After all, the death penalty has been prohibited as a punishment for rape since 1977, when the United States Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional.

That's not the only curious aspect of Pawlenty's decision to advocate for executions. If Minnesota does reinstate the death penalty, it would run counter to a nationwide trend of ebbing support for executions. Fewer people were sentenced to death over the last two years than at any time since the modern death-penalty era began with Utah's execution of Gary Gilmore in 1977.

While 37 states and the federal government continue to pursue capital cases, some jurisdictions have recently taken steps to eliminate, or temporarily halt, executions. A year ago, former Illinois Governor George Ryan emptied the state's death row, commuting all 167 death sentences handed down in that state to life sentences and pardoning four men on the basis of innocence. The state's track record since reinstating the death penalty in 1977 had been dreadful: 12 inmates were executed while 13 were exonerated and set free.

Other states have taken more tentative steps. Questions about dubious convictions and discrimination prompted the North Carolina Senate to pass a two-year moratorium on executions in May. The state's House of Representatives is expected to consider the legislation next year. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have debated similar proposals.

There are plenty of reasons why states are backpedaling from the death penalty. Capital cases have proven to be fraught with error, exceedingly expensive, and impossible to apply impartially. "You can't make a foolproof system and you can't make a system that is applied uniformly if humans are making the decisions," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "There's going to be politics and prejudices."

And there are going to be costs. A 2001 study by Dartmouth University economist Katherine Baicker determined that county governments spent $1.6 billion on capital trials between 1982 and 1997. She concluded that the end result of these expenditures was significantly higher taxes and reduced funding for highways and police. Other studies have shown that capital cases are dramatically more expensive than prosecutions in which a life sentence without parole is sought. A 2000 study by the Palm Beach Post, for example, found that Florida spends an additional $51 million annually to pursue death penalty cases.

The reason for these exorbitant costs is that the stakes are so high. For obvious reasons, death penalty cases always go to trial. What's more, they essentially end up being two separate court cases. The initial proceeding determines whether or not the person committed the crime and the second establishes what the appropriate punishment should be. Appeals then often go on for years.

Even if Minnesota determines that such costs are justified, despite a looming $185 million budget shortfall next year, the administration of the death penalty in other states has been arbitrary and discriminatory. In New York state, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau refuses to seek the death penalty in any cases, while just a stone's throw north, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro has aggressively sought capital punishment convictions.

And there is one fairly strong indicator of whether a prosecutor will seek the death penalty: the victim's race. Roughly half of all murder victims are white. However, in cases where the death penalty is dispensed, the proportion of white victims jumps to 80 percent. Dieter argues that even subtle racial prejudices are impossible to completely eliminate from the justice system. "How do you wipe that stuff out of people's minds so that they judge everybody equally?" he asks. "I don't think we know how to do that."

Inmates given death sentences often then spend years awaiting execution. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the 71 prisoners executed in 2002 had logged an average of 10 years and 7 months on death row. California has sentenced more than 624 people to death since 1978--but only carried out 10 executions. Earlier this year, in the midst of that state's budget crisis, $220 million was allocated to renovate San Quentin Prison so that the condemned men could be housed there.

Perhaps the best indication of what will occur in Minnesota if executions are embraced can be gleaned from scrutinizing what's taken place in New York state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1995. In the ensuing years, New York has spent millions of dollars attempting to put people to death. The amount of money allocated this year just to pay defense attorneys is $13.8 million. A study by the New York Law Journal determined that the state spent well over $3 million to prosecute one case. Despite these efforts, just seven prisoners have been sentenced to death, and two of those verdicts have since been vacated on appeal. No one has yet been executed.

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