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High cost of the death penalty doesn't seem worth it

I went to court Thursday to see the hearing that ended with a jury voting that John Kalisz should die for his crimes — and to see if this bothered me even a little bit.

It didn't.

I'm not especially religious and don't think every human soul is sacred. There's 7 billion of us. This is a crowded old ship, and I don't see any reason to save a seat for this guy.

You don't want to take that line of thinking too far, of course. Just restrict it to people such as Kalisz. He shot five people, killed three of them and caused one of the injured survivors, his pregnant 18-year-old niece, to lose her fetus. If anybody deserves the death penalty, he does.

But the real issue here is not whether we're personally okay with the death penalty. It's whether the state needs to sentence people to death — whether it's worth its while.

I don't think so, partly because of how these sentences usually play out.

One other person whose guilt is not in question, who fully deserved his death sentence, is Freddie Lee Hall. Along with another man, Hall kidnapped a 21-year-old woman from a grocery in Leesburg, raped her, killed her and then drove to Hernando County, where he murdered a young sheriff's deputy named Lonnie Coburn.

That was 34 years ago, and Hall is still on death row, leading some people to say that we need to hurry the entire process along, to cut out all the ridiculous appeals.

The problem is, some appeals aren't ridiculous, and there's a local example of that, too. The 1986 first-degree murder conviction of Paul Hildwin is looking shakier all the time, with the most recent revelation being that DNA at the crime scene did not belong to Hildwin, but to another potential suspect, the victim's boyfriend.

And what is the public benefit when a murderer is eventually put to death?

If we want to make sure murderers don't murder again, we can lock them up for life. This is just as effective as execution for deterring other would-be killers. That, at least, is the majority opinion of criminologists.

So this isn't really about public safety. It's about emotional satisfaction — good old-fashioned revenge.

And, in a way, our pursuit of this elevates criminals, gives them more attention, time and money than they deserve.

A 2008 study by the nonpartisan Urban Institute put the long-term cost of a life sentence at $1.1 million, compared to $3 million for death. Though the study was conducted in another state, experts have told me previously that the costs in Florida are probably comparable — an extra $2 million or so for every death sentence.

I know it's a pittance spread over the general population. But wouldn't you rather this money be spent on education or health care?

Prosecutor Pete Magrino seemed to do a fine job of convicting Kalisz. Then we could have let the judge take over and sentence him to life in prison. We could have dispensed with the penalty phase, which is needed only for death cases, and the inevitable appeals which, in Kalisz's case, seem sure to waste the time of a lot of smart, well-educated people.

Because this is what I thought when I saw the judge, lawyers, jurors, bailiff and court reporter gathered on Thursday to decide the fate of the contemptible man in the defendant's chair:

We're going to spend an extra $2 million on this guy?

High cost of the death penalty doesn't seem worth it 01/26/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 26, 2012 6:46pm]
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