November 20, 2007

Apalling acts don't justify executions

I was only six years old in the spring of 1994 when my parents first told me about the brutal slayings that had taken place just four years before in our hometown of Gainesville, Florida. Five college students were murdered, and, in a series of grisly scenes, their bodies were disfigured and theatrically arranged in a spectacle that stunned the community. It was that spring that Danny Rolling stood trial for those murders, to which he eventually confessed. Rolling was sentenced to death.

Last autumn, as I was just starting classes here, Rolling was finally executed, 16 years after the murders took place.

Growing up, I was greatly touched by the events surrounding the student murders. Both of my parents were professionally involved, with my mother serving as victim’s advocate for the families and my father working to dispel the fears and allay the trauma inflicted on the community. People could not understand the blithe disregard for human life that Rolling exhibited. The word thrown around most often was “monster”—how else can we understand the source of such unfathomable evil? In fact, it was easy to view Rolling’s death sentence in that light, as if we had vanquished a terrible beast. The blow dealt to humanity seemed to require his death.

In recent months, the subject of capital punishment has been pushed to the forefront, and my childhood feelings have returned with a bad taste. Economists, legal experts, and advocates on both sides of the debate have jumped aboard an already-full bandwagon, seated right behind the Supreme Court. The Court recently agreed to review a Kentucky prisoner’s challenge to lethal injection as a method of execution on the basis that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. A stay of execution issued in a similar case has provided a de facto moratorium on such executions.

This is a rare moment for reflection on the issue of capital punishment. As some states move toward dismantling their execution programs, old arguments have been shouldered anew, bolstered by recent studies that suggest a negative correlation between the use of the death penalty and the frequency of violent crime. Critics have found fault with these studies on the basis of scarcity of data, failure to account for all the factors that may affect the rate of violent crime, and the existence of numerous findings to the contrary. The deterrence argument is like a punching bag for death-penalty partisans: It’s been battered around repeatedly without any sure-fire prospect of victory for either side.

Yet leaving aside the notion that murderers act in response to incentives of which they have reasonable knowledge, the economic argument is being rolled out from another angle. The question is whether the costs of execution are greater than the alternative arrangement of life imprisonment without parole. Conventional wisdom—or research—has said that giving life would be cheaper than dealing death, but there seem to be efforts afoot to change that calculation in favor of death.

The Los Angeles Times reported in August that the Bush Administration was in the process of hashing out new regulations inspired by the refurbished USA PATRIOT Act. These new rules would allow participating states to create a “fast track” toward execution by narrowing the window for habeas corpus pleas to federal courts, an important part of the appeals process for capital cases. Similar measures have been proposed in order to obstruct the appeals that so frequently halt, or at least delay, executions. The idea is that after a certain period has elapsed, the convict ought to lose the right to challenge his date with the executioner. Additionally, anti-terror legislation has imposed strict limits on the number and scope of appeals.

Technical obstructions don’t stop there. On August 23, Luther J. Williams was put to death in Alabama after the Supreme Court agreed with four votes to hear his plea, but lacked the five votes needed to stay his execution. The machinery of death chugged forward unfazed, and Luther was killed by lethal injection, his case rendered “moot.”

In some states, like Virginia, the submission of new evidence is strictly regulated so that after a certain amount of time has passed, without competent counsel, convicts can lose the opportunity to make a fair case. The use of DNA evidence, which has overturned verdicts in many cases, is often restricted. In some instances, DNA evidence has motivated witnesses to repudiate their charges, revealing a deeper problem with the reliability of witness testimony in general.

There are numerous problems with capital punishment in America, but even an abundance of exonerations and revealed irregularities have not inspired changes to the scientific sangfroid of state executions. The fact is that media-driven cases like Danny Rolling’s serve as exemplars, collapsing an issue of great complexity. The “monster” is always terrifying when it consumes the lives of innocents, whether it is a serial killer or the deadly needle of a sterile prison chamber. We are remiss in calling a callous system that would deal death for bureaucratic trifles “humane.” We cannot calculate the value of innocent lives lost, but we can be sure that their value is the same, no matter who or what is responsible for killing them.

Marshall Knudson is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and romance languages and literature.