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Executions are expensive and an ineffective deterrent. Should the death penalty die?

Florida’s death row inmates are strapped into this gurney before they die by lethal injection in Starke.

Florida Department of Corrections

Florida’s death row inmates are strapped into this gurney before they die by lethal injection in Starke.

Does it seem like not so long ago that John Allen Muhammad — the D.C. Sniper — was terrorizing residents of the nation's capital? And does it seem as if the state of Virginia executed him with unusual speed — just six years from his sentencing to his death?

If it seems that way to you, you're not alone.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stay Muhammad's execution last week, three justices noted the relative haste with which he met his state-ordered end.

"This case highlights once again the perversity of executing inmates before their appeals process has been fully concluded,'' Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for himself, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Nor was Muhammad's case unique. Of the 10 other inmates recently put to death in Virginia, the average length of time between sentence and execution was 6 ½ years.

Contrast that to Florida, where the last man executed, John Marek, sat on death row for nearly a quarter of a century. And where another inmate, triple murderer Gary Alvord, has been awaiting execution since 1974 — the year President Richard Nixon resigned.

The huge disparity in the time it takes states to execute murderers stems from a number of factors. But at the heart of the issue is the death penalty itself and whether it too should be put to an end.

As Florida and other states struggle with shrinking budgets, it becomes increasingly hard to justify sending people to death row and keeping them there for years when even many in law enforcement say there are cheaper, more effective deterrents to crime. Whether execution comes quickly — as in Virginia — or is delayed for decades — as is often the case in Florida — capital punishment has little appreciable effect on murder rates, experts note.

"Is it worth pursuing death in a case that may cost the state $2 million more than pursuing life in prison?'' asks Scott Sundby, an expert on capital punishment at Virginia's Washington and Lee School of Law. "Two million dollars is a lot of teachers, a lot of firefighters, a lot of police officers. When you start thinking about it that way, it becomes much harder to make those tradeoffs.''

• • •

Although seven of his 13 victims were in Maryland, Muhammad wound up before a sentencing judge in Virginia, a state known for its comparatively swift dispatch of death row inmates.

One of the main reasons is that Virginia, unlike most states, sets execution dates before all appeals are completed.

"It always speeds up the process so the defense attorneys have to file before the actual appeals deadline,'' says Beth Panilaitis, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

That's what happened in Muhammad's case. The Supreme Court was to hear his petition Nov. 24, but the state scheduled the execution for Nov. 10, rushing the justices' deliberation on a matter "that demands the most careful attention,'' as Stevens complained.

Another factor: Though Virginia has executed more people than any other state except Texas since 1976, it has imposed relatively few death sentences in recent years and has a small death row population — 22 today. So there is not a huge backlog of cases requiring judicial review as there is in Florida, where 387 are awaiting execution, or California, with 678 on death row.

"A capital case is the neurosurgery of the legal system,'' Sundby says. "The law is very complicated, the trials are very complicated, and as a result it shouldn't be surprising that it takes a while to have a full and fair hearing if someone's constitutional rights have been satisfied.

"By their very nature these cases are going to take a long time, and when you put them in states like Florida or California, where you already have 300, 400, 500 cases in the queue, it's certainly a recipe for a very long time between sentencing and actual execution.''

Sundby and other experts also note that Virginia's appeals courts are more conservative than those in Florida and California and thus more likely to affirm death sentences. That's another reason cases move more quickly through the system.

"In both Virginia and Texas, the courts simply are not players, they are not in the game,'' says Stephen Hanlon, a Washington attorney who has handled capital cases. "There's no significant review in either of these states whereas the courts are a player in Florida and do take review much more seriously than in other states and for good reason.''

Since 1973, at least 138 people nationwide — including a retarded Virginia man — have been exonerated and freed from death row. The average time between sentencing and exoneration was 9.8 years — three years longer than the average Virginia inmate now stays on death row before being executed.

"It absolutely opens the door to mistakes being missed,'' says Panilaitis of the Virginians for death penalty alternatives. And mistakes often occur: A landmark study of all capital cases between 1976 and 1996 found errors in 67 percent of them.

Says Hanlon: "If you get something wrong 67 percent of the time, something's wrong and I think responsible courts know that.''

It's costly to kill

All this would be moot if Virginia, Florida, Texas and California did what 15 states already have done — outlaw capital punishment. Several other states seriously considered it this year, including Connecticut, whose legislature passed an abolition bill only to have it effectively vetoed by a tough-on-crime governor.

The reasons the death penalty is falling out of favor? Cost and effectiveness.

"Around the country, death sentences have declined 60 percent since 2000 and executions have declined almost as much,'' according to a new report by the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. "Yet maintaining a system with 3,300 people on death row and supporting new prosecutions for death sentences that likely will never be carried out is becoming increasingly expensive and harder to justify.''

Case in point: New York and New Jersey spent more than $100 million on a system that produced no executions. Both recently abandoned the practice.

In Florida, the cost of prosecution, defense, appeals and heightened security in capital cases is an estimated $51 million a year greater than what it would be to punish first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions carried out in Florida from 1976 to 2000, that comes to about $24 million per execution.

And many capital cases never result in executions because defendants die — as did John Couey, who murdered 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford — or because sentences are reversed, laws are overturned or governors grant clemency.

"This often means that a life sentence is the end result, but only after a very expensive death penalty process,'' the report notes.

In a poll released with the report, U.S. police chiefs listed the death penalty last among their priorities for reducing violent crime. Nearly 60 percent said it had little deterrent value because perpetrators rarely think about the consequences of their acts.

Instead, increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating more jobs all ranked far higher than capital punishment in preventing crime, the chiefs agreed. Or as former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper succinctly put it:

"The death penalty is inefficient and extravagantly expensive.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

Executions are expensive and an ineffective deterrent. Should the death penalty die? 11/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 5:56pm]
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