I didn’t see what all the hubbub was about over state prosecutors trying to figure out who should get the first crack at John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo over the sniper shootings. Unless the pair is discovered to have killed someone in Texas, it’s pretty obvious that Virginia should go first–it’s the most death-penalty-friendly of all the states in line. As death sentence makes every other sanction moot, it’s obviously most efficient to go with the state that has the highest odds of levying that punishment, regardless of how many people were killed in other states or where the suspects were finally caught.
It would also be the understatement of the year to say that the defense attorneys for Muhammad and Malvo have an uphill battle ahead of them. Fairfax County prosecutor Bob Horan and Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert have a slam dunk on their hands and they know it. And I’m probably not alone when I say that I’m already convinced that the alleged sniper duo are guilty of the heinous multiple murders that held our area under a siege of fear for weeks.
Yet I still don’t think they should get the death penalty.
I don’t come to this conclusion by thinking that a death penalty is “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment. It’s not. At least not when compared to the suffering borne by the killer’s victims and their families. Plus, if sentenced to death, convicted felons get the chance to wrap up their affairs and say goodbye to their families and friends–an opportunity not shared by their victims. As Justice Antonin Scalia once noted, a quiet death by lethal injection is enviable indeed when compared to what the felon has most often dealt out to others. And, in a way, this has brought me to the conclusion that the death penalty is actually too good for odious murderers.
I mean, we all die eventually, right? All the death penalty does is accelerate that which was already going to happen to the felon anyway. If left in jail to rot until they die, it’s the exact same result only this time you’ve added on a few decades of prison hell to boot. Instead of dying young(er) with only a couple of years in custody, the felon gets to have a (hopefully long) life full of walls, bars, isolation, and fear. Counter-intuitively, life in prison without opportunity for parole is ultimately a worse punishment than the death penalty.
Some may worry about the costs of housing these inmates for the rest of their lives. But when compared to the costs of acquiring a death penalty conviction, it pretty much evens out. A prison term costs about $30,000 a year, while the average death penalty case after all the appeals, sentencing, the trial itself, and the costs of the various procedural protections, can easily top $1 million–not counting the time spent in jail by the suspect. And don’t forget those expensive trials that ask for the death penalty but don’t get it. Life imprisonment is an easier punishment to levy and the trials would be cheaper.
I will grant that life imprisonment leaves the felon alive to potentially do more damage to society, either by escaping or just being around to communicate with others. However, when we consider someone like Charles Manson, who surely would have been strapped in the chair were it not for the Supreme Court’s temporary ban on capital punishment, we see that the odds of this just aren’t too worrisome. If push comes to shove, we can make these people effectively disappear if need be. And what’s the problem with fellow lifers interacting with each other?
Life imprisonment also has the advantage of being reversible should error be found, while the death penalty is not. And error is not a small part of capital punishment, unfortunately. A Columbia University study that tracked the results of capital convictions from 1973 to 1995 found that an astonishing 68 percent of those cases were overturned on appeal, with 7 percent found not guilty on retrial and 75 percent given lesser sentences. Between incompetent defense counsel, improper jury instruction, and police misconduct, there’s enough out there to give one pause about the reliability of our system. That same study found that Virginia averaged an 18 percent error rate over the same period–better than average, but troubling just the same.
Besides, there’s no real evidence to show that the death penalty reduces murder rates by serving as a suitable deterrent. States with capital punishment actually tend to have slightly higher murder rates on average, and it’s not been shown that the murder rates would have been significantly higher but for the threat of the death penalty.
I guess the main advantage of the death penalty ultimately comes down to the satisfaction of revenge for the victims’ families, but even this is dubious. Maybe if people saw life imprisonment as the worse punishment they would relent. Sure, the killer is still alive, but it’s an unpleasant life and they’ll die eventually anyway. Why let them off the hook so quickly?
People have been put to death on far less evidence than has been presented so far in the case of Muhammad and Malvo. That alone gives me pause. But even when the killers are caught red-handed, I still see more advantages to sticking them in a prison for life than giving them the death penalty. It’s the better–and tougher–justice.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire