Editorials - Life Without Parole

Instead of a New Means of Capital Punishment, the Legislature Should Get Rid of It

Days after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair was unconstitutional, a Lincoln Journal Star editorial urged the state to reconsider the death penalty:  "Instead of rushing to pass a new means of capital punishment, the Legislature should take this opportunity to finally get rid of the death penalty."   Nebraska was the only state to retain the electric chair as its sole means of execution. The paper noted that it was the right time to take a broader look at the death penalty.  "With the advent of more DNA testing, errors in sending people to death row were shown to be far more frequent than most people believed."  Hence, the paper concluded, "the time is ripe to abolish capital punishment in the state.”

The editorial noted that according to a poll by Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty, 51% of Nebraskans favor a repeal of the death penalty if it is replaced with a sentence of life without parole and restitution to the victim’s estate. Last year, a bill that would allow for life in prison or life in prison without the possibility of parole as a sentence for first-degree murder, introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers, failed by only one vote.  The last execution to take place in Nebraska occurred in 1997.

(“Abolish the death penalty in Nebraska,” Lincoln Journal Star, February 10, 2008). See Editorials.

Don't Expand Capital Punishment, Abolish It

In a recent editorial, the Concord Monitor advocated against expanding New Hampshire’s death penalty law to include multiple-murder offenses, as some lawmakers have proposed. Instead, they say, “the death penalty should be eliminated, not expanded.” The editorial cites problems in the death penalty process, such as wrongful convictions, high costs, and its arbitrariness, as reasons for abolition.

The Monitor also writes that the death penalty is counterproductive, noting, “It does nothing to deter people from committing murder, but it simultaneously sends the message that, under circumstances other than war or defense of oneself or another, it is permissible to kill another human being.” The paper continues, “Expanding the death penalty to apply to more offenses will not reduce the murder rate. Making killing a cultural taboo so heinous that society doesn't impose it on the worst of criminals, might.”

New Hampshire has not had an execution in almost 70 years.

(“Don't expand capital punishment, abolish it,” Concord Monitor, February 6, 2008). See Editorials.

Declining Support for Kentucky's Death Penalty

An editorial published by the Lexington Herald-Leader noted that support for Kentucky's death penalty has declined since the state resumed executions a decade ago. The paper stated that 68% of state residents questioned in a recent poll preferred a long prison sentence over execution for those convicted of murder. The Herald-Leader concluded that Kentuckians' growing unease about capital punishment is reflective of a broader national trend away from the death penalty and that the death penalty is often more a matter of chance than of justice. The editorial stated:

It's interesting that public support for the death penalty has declined in the almost 10 years since Kentucky resumed executions.  Most Kentuckians still say they support capital punishment. But given the choice of sentencing a convicted murderer to death or a long prison term, 68 percent say prison is the appropriate sentence.

Just 30 percent pick death, according to the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center.

In 1997, support was about equal for the death penalty and a long prison term, at just under 40 percent.

A number of explanations are possible for the shift in public opinion: Mistaken convictions revealed by DNA evidence. A disturbing number of innocent people who independent investigations have discovered on Death Row. (Illinois had so many that it put a moratorium on executions.) Bad press about lethal injection, which was supposed to be more humane.

Or maybe it's just a growing unease that deciding who lives and dies isn't a job that government does very well.

Some crimes are so heinous that death seems the only fitting punishment. But after watching the highly imperfect process of deciding who gets death and who doesn't, most Kentuckians are more comfortable putting a violent criminal away for a long time.

After all, someone who's mistakenly imprisoned can be set free.

Whatever the reasons, Kentucky seems to be part of a larger trend.

A Gallup Poll earlier this year found that 65 percent of Americans support the death penalty, down from 80 percent in 1994. Given the choice of life without parole as an alternative to execution, more chose life without parole (48 percent) than death (47 percent.)

The number of executions in 2006 was down, even in such bastions of capital punishment as Texas.

Kentucky has executed two people in the 30 years since the death penalty was reinstated, one in 1997 and the other in 1999.

So maybe capital punishment is doomed. The death penalty will become obsolete, at no political risk to anyone, as juries choose long prison terms over death sentences.

That probably would happen if juries in capital cases reflected public sentiment. But they often don't. Prosecutors use their selection options to empanel juries that are more pro-death penalty than the general public.

Under such circumstances, a sentence of death becomes even more a matter of chance than justice.

That puts more pressure on everyone in the system to get things right.

(Lexington Herald-Leader, January 3, 2007).

Society Should End this System...Put Murderers Away for Life

In a recent editorial, the Delaware News Journal concluded that the uncertainties and delays of the death penalty favor ending the system and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Such a system would better serve victims and their families, and bring swifter justice:

The latest argument over the death penalty centers on a seemingly simple question: Is the current method of execution cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution?

The Supreme Court eventually will answer, but not settle the question. Yet the debate is affecting states, including Delaware.
    . . .
No matter how the argument turns out, it is anything but simple. What, after all, does cruel and usual punishment mean?
    . . .

In the meantime, the families and friends of victims will suffer through every appeal and delay.

Society should end this system. Americans are too reluctant to eliminate or streamline appeals. For valid reasons, they are afraid of being hasty and killing an innocent man. On the hand, the long, costly process robs the death penalty of any deterrent effect.

Put murderers away for life. Take away any chance of parole or release.

Such a policy will never replace the lost victims or fully comfort their families. But it will keep them from having to relive murders with every appeal. And it will give respect to the idea of swift and sure justice.

(Delaware News Journal, July 28, 2006).

Newspaper Changes Its Position - 'Commonsense Finding is that Death Penalty Has Failed and Should be Abolished'

An editorial in the Asbury Park Press, a newspaper that formerly supported capital punishment, called on New Jersey policymakers to abandon the state's costly death penalty and replace it with the "sure and swift" sentence of life without parole. Stating that New Jersey has wasted millions of dollars on the death penalty, but has not carried out an execution since it was reinstated in1982, the editorial noted:

Can it really be 22 years since Robert O. Marshall cowardly hired hit men to shoot and kill his wife and the mother of his three children for insurance money? So he could continue an extramarital affair and carry on with his country club life? Sadly, it has been that long for the 66-year-old former Toms River insurance salesman.

Marshall was on death row for two decades before a court found his representation during the death penalty phase of his trial was lacking. The court overturned the death penalty and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that decision, leaving it up to the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office to decide whether to seek the death penalty again.

Ocean County Prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher said Friday his office struggled with the decision, but ultimately decided not to ask another jury to sentence Marshall to death because of the difficulty in mounting a case so long after the crime was committed and the likelihood that more appeals would take years to resolve at great public expense.

"This troublesome and distressing conclusion was made only after extensive consultation with the family of the victim, Maria Marshall," Kelaher said.

In March, we reluctantly called for another death penalty trial, with concern about the issues raised by Kelaher and the hope that Marshall would never be paroled. However, we understand the prosecutor's reasoning that going through another round of legal proceedings that would cost more millions over a decade or more is problematic. And we urge him in the strongest terms to follow through with his pledge to oppose parole of Marshall forever. He could be released in 2014.

Which again brings us to the issue of New Jersey's death penalty. Since its reinstitution in 1982, no cold-blooded murderer has been executed. Nearly 50 death sentences have been overturned by higher courts. For now, a yearlong moratorium on executions is in effect while a study commission looks at how New Jersey enforces its death penalty statute.

The commission should file its report now with the common-sense finding that New Jersey's death penalty is a failure and should be abolished in favor of life in prison without parole.

To be effective, justice must be sure and swift. New Jersey's death penalty statute is neither. It is such a drain on resources as to be counterproductive.

Think of the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on scum like Marshall. Multiply that by 50 or more. Life without chance of parole. That's a sentence whose execution can be sure and swift.

(Asbury Park Press, May 16, 2006) (emphasis added).

Life Without Parole is the Better Option for Wisconsin

A recent editorial in the La Crosse Tribune urged Wisconsin legislators to maintain the state's ban on capital punishment. The editorial discouraged the state from reinstating capital punishment because it does not deter crime and is often unfairly applied, stating that there is no need to bring back the death penalty because the state already has the sentence of life without parole. Legislators recently voted to hold a non-binding referendum on restoring the death penalty, though the two versions of the referendum bill have not been reconciled. The editorial stated:

Wisconsin used to have the death penalty. Before 1853. Before the botched hanging in 1851 of John McCaffary, who drowned his wife in a water trough.

I first wrote about the McCaffary hanging in 1991, when the Legislature was also considering enacting the death penalty. It’s quite a story.

On a summer day in 1851, Kenosha County officials set up a wooden gallows in an area large enough to accommodate about 2,000 spectators who showed up to watch the hanging.

A newspaper at that time said McCaffary’s body was “hoisted” into the air when he hit the end of the rope. He dangled there for about eight minutes. His heart was still beating. Doctors checked his pulse and then let him hang there for another 10 minutes, in front of all the spectators, before he finally died.

Public opinion changed pretty dramatically about capital punishment in Wisconsin after that. In 1853, the Legislature abolished it. Now many legislators want to bring it back.

Several weeks ago, the state Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 5, calling for an advisory referendum in November on the issue of capital punishment.

Late Thursday, the Assembly voted to put the death penalty referendum on the November ballot. It’s unclear whether that will happen, however, because the Assembly proposal was slightly different than the Senate version, and another Senate vote would be required.

State Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, who supports both the referendum and the death penalty itself (for particularly heinous crimes), said he expects the Senate to approve the issue later when it comes back to deal with some administrative issues.

Legislators have been trying for years to bring back the death penalty for Wisconsin.

In 1991, they sought the death penalty for serial killers. The question legislators want to ask voters this time is if they favor capital punishment for murders where there is a DNA match.

Public opinion surveys often show that most citizens favor the death penalty, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. One theory is that the death penalty deters murder.

Does it?

Louisiana has the death penalty and it also has the highest murder rate in the country, with 12.7 murders for every 100,000 people in 2004.

The murder rates in the death penalty states of Maryland, New Mexico and Mississippi are all above seven murders for every 100,000 people.

In Wisconsin, by contrast, the murder rate is 2.8. Iowa doesn’t have the death penalty, and its rate is 1.6. Texas, which executes the most people in the nation, has a 6.1 murder rate.

The New York Times, which has published editorials against capital punishment, did a study of homicide rates and death penalties in 2000, and concluded that murder rates rise and fall with little seeming relationship to whether states execute murderers.

The Times quoted Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, who said the death penalty is applied unfairly to minorities.

“It is rare that a wealthy white man gets executed, if it happens at all,” McCann said.

Officials who “have labored long in the criminal justice system know, supported by a variety of studies and extensive personal experience, that blacks get the harsher hand in criminal justice and particularly in capital punishment cases,” McCann wrote in 1996.

Public safety can be served by keeping our most dangerous criminals in prison without parole for the rest of their lives.

That way we don’t need to restore the death penalty in Wisconsin.

(La Crosse Tribune, May 9, 2006, by Richard Mial, opinion page editor).

North Carolina Law Results in Sharp Drop in Death Sentences

According to the North Carolina News & Record, death sentences in the state have significantly declined since the 2001 enactment of legislation that allows defendants to plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a sentence of life without parole rather than go to trial and risk the death penalty. Juries are also returning fewer death sentences. The paper argues that the emergence of the life-without-parole alternative should result in a reconsideration of the sentences of those already on death row:

It's unfair to make one person serve more time in prison than another if both committed the same crime.

That idea drove a recent change in state law that encourages the parole commission to release more inmates who were locked up before sentencing guidelines changed in 1994. A prisoner serving 20 years for an offense that now requires only a 10-year penalty might deserve strong consideration for parole. It's a simple matter of fairness.

Too bad legislators didn't apply the same principle to inmates on death row. Since a 2001 change in the law, the number of death sentences imposed by North Carolina courts has fallen dramatically.

Under the new law, defendants can plead guilty to a charge of first-degree murder and receive a sentence of life without parole rather than go to trial and risk the death penalty. Many prosecutors agree to that outcome. It saves overworked district attorneys' staffs the time and expense of a trial, spares the state a lengthy appeals process and often relieves victims' families of the ordeal they endure when the facts of the crime are rehashed as the killer's execution approaches.

In addition, with public attitudes about capital punishment beginning to shift, many jurors are more comfortable voting for a life sentence rather than death as long as they know there's no possibility of parole.

The numbers tell the story: In 1999, 24 people were sent to North Carolina's death row; in 2000, 17; in 2001, 15. Then, after the new law went into effect, seven in 2002; six in 2003, four in 2004; and six so far this year.

Altogether, 156 of the 177 men and women on death row have been there since 2001 or earlier. Whether most North Carolinians still approve of the death penalty or not, North Carolina juries are slowly eliminating its use.

That invites an obvious conclusion: Death row is largely populated by inmates who, if tried again by today's legal standards, would not be sentenced to death. Yet many of them will be executed. The exceptions may win new trials for other legal reasons, be granted a commutation of sentence or perhaps die of natural causes.

These people on death row were left out when state legislators this year tried to insert a measure of fairness into the criminal-justice system. Lawmakers said to thousands of prisoners, "You shouldn't be held longer for your crime than you would be if you had committed the same offense after 1994." But to the inmates facing the most severe punishment, they said nothing.

Maybe it's not politically smart to give murderers a break. The question, however, isn't whether murderers should go free. Of course they shouldn't. But, if juries today are more inclined to sentence killers to life in prison without parole, it's only fair for legislators to consider the same leniency for those already on death row.

(News & Record, November 7, 2005; emphasis added).

USA Today Editorial Says Life Without Parole is "Fitting Replacement" for Death Penalty

In an editorial highlighting public support for the sentencing option of life without parole in death penalty cases and the need to take steps to protect against executing innocent people, USA Today recently stated that life without the possibility of parole is a "fitting replacement" for the death penalty. The editorial praised the historic enactment of a life without the possibility of parole statute in Texas and other recent activities around the nation that seek to address problems with capital punishment. It noted:

For the past half century, the nation has been locked — deadlocked might be a better word — in a bitter debate over the death penalty. But what if there is a middle ground?

With little fanfare, a compromise has been gaining favor more than a decade, drawing support as DNA evidence has exonerated inmates on death row. Last week, it reached a milestone. Texas, site of one in three executions, gave juries the option to sentence defendants in capital cases to life without parole rather than death.

All but one death-penalty state, New Mexico, now offers that choice, a marked change from the era when life sentences were a meaningless illusion. But why stop at making life without parole just an optional alternative to execution? It is a fitting replacement, assuring severe punishment for the worst of crimes but with a safety valve to protect those falsely accused or wrongly sentenced.

Evidence of the need pours in weekly now.

Five times in the past seven months, the Supreme Court has had to rein in state courts that mishandled death penalty cases. On Monday, the court ordered a new sentencing trial in a Pennsylvania case involving shoddy work by the lawyer for an accused murderer.

Last week, the court sent back cases from Texas and California that reeked of racial discrimination in jury selection. Earlier, the court ruled against Texas (again) and Missouri (twice) in cases of excluding relevant evidence, making defendants appear in shackles and executing juveniles.

Just last week at the state level:

    An Oklahoma appeals court ordered a new trial for a man sentenced to death in a 1982 murder on the basis of testimony from a police chemist who has since been fired for poor and unreliable lab work

    An Illinois man jailed for eight months and facing the death penalty in his daughter's death was released when a long-overdue DNA test finally came back — negative.

    A former North Carolina judge urged the state Legislature to impose a two-year moratorium on executions.

Against this backdrop, the rate of executions has dropped 40% from its onetime high.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the Supreme Court has tried to make clear that it is to be applied carefully and evenhandedly. Nevertheless, cases of incompetent lawyering, suppression of evidence, local prejudice and other affronts to justice keep appearing.

The result is evident in the numbers who narrowly escaped execution: While 972 people have been put to death since the 1970s, at least 119 have been taken off death row because of evidence they were wrongly convicted or sentenced.

According to a Gallup Poll in May, 74% of the public supports the death penalty, but backing for capital punishment drops to 56% when respondents are given the alternative of life without parole. Even in Texas, a Scripps-Howard poll last October found that while 75% supported the death penalty, 78% favored the option of life without parole.

Already, life without the death penalty is the norm in a growing number of states. In addition to the 12 that don't allow it, five others have had no executions in more than 30 years; six have used it only once in that time.

Abolishing the death penalty and using life without parole instead can't fix all the injustices exposed in courts across the nation. But at least no one would be executed as a result.

(USA Today, June 22, 2005)