"Wright has been on death row since 1985," was the last sentence in a news story in The Tennessean today. The story was that the Tennessee Supreme Court decided this week that they could hear a challenge to the constitutionality of electric chair executions. The State Attorney General had argued that the Court could not hear an inmates challenge to the electric chair given that none of the inmates were immediately facing execution. The challenge to the electric chair was added to a case challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection. In addition to this challenge to the constitutionality of the means of execution, there is also pending a case about whether the names of people in an execution team should be released to the condemned inmates attorneys.
What struck me in this case is that Wright has been on death row since 1985: That is 30 years. That is not swift justice. In 1984, Charles Wright shot and killed two people during a drug deal.
The death penalty is costly. In Tennessee, death penalty trials cost an average of 48% more than the average cost of trials in which prosecutors seek life imprisonment, according to a 2004 Report from Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Office of Research. Also 29% of the cases in which a person is given the death penalty the conviction is reversed due to trial errors. The cost of carrying out an execution in 2004 was about $12,000. Still, the report found that the execution of an inmate saves the state approximately $773,736 for the future imprisonment of the inmate when compared to an inmate sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Charles wright is 60 years old now and has already spent 30 years on death row and still does not have a date of execution. I do not know what the life expectancy of Charles Wright would be if he lived out the rest of his life in prison without parole but I do not see how executing him is saving the state much money. In 2004 the average time spend on death row was 13 years. I do not know what is it is now. Maybe it is time for Tennessee to do another study and see it executing someone does actually save money. Studies from other states show it does not.
One thing that concerns me about the death penalty is that there is the possibility of executing an innocent person. According to The Innocence Project, there have been 325 post-convictions exonerations due to DNA evidence alone since 1989. Twenty of the 325 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row. Mistakes happen, but when a man is put to death it cannot be undone and executions carried out by the state are done in the name of we the people. Is the risk of killing an innocent person worth the satisfaction or benefit of seeing the guilty executed?
One of the arguments in favor of the death penalty is that it is a deterrent to crime. I doubt it. The 2004 Comptroller report said, "Previous research provides no clear indication whether the death penalty acts as a method of crime prevention. Some research supports the death penalty as a deterrent, other studies support the notion that it is not a deterrent, and still others indicate that the death penalty stimulates acts of first-degree murder."
Evidence shows that states with the death penalty actually have higher murder rates than states without the death penalty. That may not be conclusive, there may be other factors, but the evidence does not prove the death penalty is a deterrent. If someone is on drugs, or alcohol or burning with the passion of hatred or revenge or greed or is just a totally evil person who can kill without guilt, does he stops to consider: "I live in a state with a death penalty. I better not commit this crime?" Or, do you think he my reasons: "I live in a state without the death penalty. What the heck? The worst I can get is life without the possibility of payroll. I will do it"? I don't think they reason like that. Also, if Charles Wright is put to death 31years after he committed the crime, do you think that prevents some other person from committing a crime?
I have concluded I no longer support the death penalty. I have no moral objection to putting to death someone who committed murder. I am not passionate in my opposition. For some especially horrendous murders I could pull the switch myself. Some people are so evil they do not deserve to live. I won't be attending any candlelight vigils for Charles Wright outside the gates of the Riverbend Maximum Security prison. I doubt I will be joining in protest to mourn the life of any specific individual sentenced to death.
As a practical matter however, it seems the death penalty is not worth the trouble or the risk of putting an innocent person to death. Also, while we should not be overly concerned with world opinion, two-thirds of the nations of the world do not carry out executions either because it is legally banned or they do not carry out execution in practice although they may still be legally permitted to carry out the death penalty. Canada, Mexico, and almost all of Europe have banned the death penalty. As a nation with a high number of executions we are in the company of North Korea, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. I don't like the company we keep.
I do not think the death penalty is "cruel and unusual." I don't want the Supreme Court to rule it as such. I don't think we need to amend the constitution to ban the death penalty. I support states rights and believe each state should make that decision. I think, however, Tennessee should join the states that have banned the death penalty, or we should establish new guidelines so it is extremely rare that anyone gets the death penalty and it is reserved for only the most horrific cases, such as cases involving serial murders or murder where the victim is tortured, or an evil person kills a helpless child; not for drug deals gone bad.