Legislative Activity - Wisconsin

  • Author of Wisconsin Death Penalty Referendum Says Law Has No Chance of Passing Sen. Al Lasee (R-DePere) of Wisconsin was the author of legislation that placed a non-binding referendum on the death penalty on the state's ballot in Tuesday's election. Although 56% of the voters approved the death penalty proposal, which required that DNA evidence confirm the conviction, Lasee said there was no chance of such a law passing in the near future: "I am a realist. There is no prospect," said Lasee , a longtime supporter of capital punishment. "The Democrats took control of the Senate and Gov. Doyle got re-elected." The governor opposes the death penalty and could veto any bill enacting capital punishment. Lasee guided the advisory referendum through the Legislature when both houses were controlled by Republicans and he was president of the Senate. He conceded that the DNA evidence requirement would probably have been dropped from an eventual bill. (The Capital Times (WI), Nov. 8, 2006). See Recent Legislation.
  • Wisconsin legislators have voted to place an advisory referendum on the death penalty on the ballot this fall. Wisconsin voters will have the opportunity to voice their opinion on whether the death penalty should be enacted in the state for cases involving a person who is convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and whose conviction is based on DNA evidence. The referendum is non-binding. Wisconsin has not had the death penalty since 1853, but the state does allow the sentencing option of life without parole. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 16, 2006).
  • 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).
  • After members of the Wisconsin Senate passed a resolution calling for a referendum on reinstating the death penalt, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial criticized the vote and urged members of the state Assembly to reject the proposal. Though Wisconsin has not had the death penalty since 1853, the state legislature has considered a reinstatement measure during each of the past 20 years. The Sentinel voiced concerns about innocence, race, deterrence, and a variety of other issues in its editorial: "The death penalty is morally wrong. Lawmakers should simply do the right thing and retain the ban. An irony is that this effort to restore the death penalty in Wisconsin comes when the nation has developed qualms about the punishment - as reflected in a slowed pace of executions. The discovery of innocent people on death row has led to the doubts. This development points to the fallibility of our criminal justice system. Should the issue of life or death be trusted to a system that can get guilt or innocence wrong? That question, which has prompted much pause elsewhere, should do likewise in Madison. Yes, the resolution would limit the penalty to homicides supported by DNA evidence. But surely, its backers aren't suggesting that check would make the penalty infallible, are they? After all, conclusions from legitimate DNA evidence may be erroneous. There are other problems: It is almost inescapably applied in a racially discriminatory manner. It serves no crime-fighting purpose. And maintaining a death row costs a fortune. A small skirmish has broken out over studies. But of hundreds of comparative studies - that is, studies that compare states with the death penalty and states without it or countries before and after dropping the penalty - none shows that the death penalty has deterred a single murder, as notes sociologist Ted Goertzel of Rutgers University. Backers of the death penalty cite mathematical studies using what the experts call "econometric modeling." Yes, some such studies do show a deterrent effect. Others, however, show just the opposite: Executions actually encourage murders. Right now, those studies, whatever their outcome, simply can't be trusted. They lack assurance that the mathematical models duplicate reality.Yes, in the face of a heinous crime, the impulse is for revenge. But a civilized society must control that impulse - a lesson the Wisconsin Legislature learned more than 150 years ago. Now, the Assembly must heed that lesson anew." (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 13, 2006).