Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Death Penalty: No Easy Solution

New York State, my home state, looks like it will no longer effectively have the death penalty, at least for the foreseeable future. Back in 1994, when George Pataki unexpectedly beat Mario Cuomo for governor, bringing back the death penalty was a centerpiece for his campaign. At the time, both the Democratic Assembly and the Republican Senate had repeatedly passed death penalty legislation only to have Mario Cuomo veto it. It was clear that majority of the state was behind it, and Pataki was true to his word when he took office, signing the bill early in 1995. Recently, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the statute was invalid on some technicality, sending it back to the legislature for a rewrite.

Now the Democratic Assembly is balking, saying they now oppose the death penalty. The crime rate is down and so concerns about executing an innocent man are outweighing limited public outcry. The funny thing is that there has not been an execution in New York State since the death penalty was added. So on the face of it, this debate seems moot. Except it isn’t…

Personally, I am conflicted when it comes to the death penalty. I have some moral qualms about it, but there are so many horrendous rape and murders where the perpetrator deserves death, in my opinion. So I therefore support its limited use. Opponents of the death penalty will often offer the public the following alternatives: death penalty or life without parole. The public, seeing the choice presented in this light, often will take the more “compassionate” choice and say they prefer life without parole. What’s wrong with that, you say? Let me tell you…

One of the most underreported realities is how often cases are decided prematurely with a plea bargain. A plea bargain only works if both the prosecution and the defense extract some value from the deal. The prosecution is often willing to offer a reduced charge or sentence so that they can avoid the risk of a surprise verdict and the expense of trial. The defense, on the other hand, might be willing to give up their chance of getting off, if they know they will face a lighter punishment. When there is the possibility of a death sentence, a defendant will be willing to negotiate life without parole.

Without the death sentence, what will be negotiated? Life without parole suddenly becomes twenty-five years and a twenty year old brutal murderer gets out in time for his midlife crisis. Also, what do you do when that serial killer hits your state? Obviously society wants to punish the mass-murderer worse than the one-timer, but how can you differentiate? Without the option of an execution, you can either allow the man who murders one off with twenty-five years and save the life sentence for the worst murderers or you can treat the murders the same. Neither option seems satisfying to me. We want to punish murderers severely, but we also want to punish the worst offenders more harshly. Having the maximum being life without parole does not address both goals.

The death penalty or life without parole? The choice is not as simple as it may seem.

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