Death penalty repeal is smart on crime
I am writing in response to the Feb 2 letter from the law enforcement chiefs who oppose Senate Bill 19 to repeal Delaware’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole. I want to correct several misconceptions in the letter as to the reasons our coalition supports Senate Bill 19 and the facts related to Delaware’s death penalty.
As the current president of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty, the sister of a murder victim, and a former healthcare employee at Baylor Women's Correctional Institution, I can assure you that the coalition of community and faith organizations in the Delaware Repeal Project supports repeal for many of the same reasons that the law enforcement chiefs oppose it.
We support law and order. We support the needs of crime victims. We support the safety of law enforcement and corrections officers. We support the need for accountability and punishment. In the years since I have been studying the death penalty since the murder of my brother and four of his friends in 1995, I have learned that the death penalty not only does not do justice to those issues, it actively undermines them through unintended consequences, even in Delaware.
I experienced firsthand the way the capital case of my brother's killer re-victimized our family. The death penalty was mysteriously dropped during the trial, reinforcing our sense that we were pawns rather than central figures in the process. Delaware’s death penalty is just as uncertain. Cornell University Law School published a report in 2012 on their study of Delaware’s death penalty between 1977 and 2012 (http://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/facpub/431). They found that “more than a third of all individuals sentenced to death in Delaware during the period under study eventually were re-sentenced to life imprisonment” (p. 1953). The expensive policy failed more than a third of the time, with nothing more to show for it, than what we would have had by pursuing life without parole in the first place. Victims’ family members who were promised an execution had the rug pulled out from under them just as my family did.
I want to assure you that we are not accusing judges, juries, or law enforcement officers of misconduct. The racial bias reported by our coalition refers to additional findings by the Cornell University Law School study. They found that “Black defendants who kill white victims are more than six times as likely to receive the death penalty as are black defendants who kill black victims. […] Moreover, black defendants who kill white victims are more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as are white defendants who kill white victims” (p. 1940). This is a systemic issue that starts well before the trial begins. We don't believe it is the specific intention of any individual to behave in a biased manner.
The cost savings of replacing the death penalty with life without parole goes far beyond reducing appeals. The money in capital cases starts flowing faster than in life without parole cases as soon as the decision is made to pursue the death penalty. Costs include more money for additional attorneys, additional experts, additional time for jury selection, and two trials (one for conviction and one for sentencing) rather than one. At least 12 states have studied the costs of the death penalty versus life without parole (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty#financialfacts). All of them have found that the death penalty costs significantly more, and there's no evidence that it improves public safety. Maryland estimates that the average cost to taxpayers for reaching a single death sentence is $3 million, $1.9 million more than the cost of a non-death penalty case. This includes investigation, trial, appeals, and incarceration costs. That is one reason why they repealed their death penalty last year.
We want public dollars to go where they will prevent murders, rather than pouring money needed elsewhere to kill those who are already off the streets and in custody. We want money to go toward solving cold cases because we believe murderers still on the streets are more dangerous than those already behind bars.
Your letter refers to the delicate line between a civilized society and anarchy. The many unsolved murders in Wilmington and elsewhere in Delaware indicate that we are already starting to cross the line into anarchy, and that is with a death penalty that is actively used.
The Death Penalty Information Center keeps statistics of executions and death sentences. Delaware remains among the most frequent users of the death penalty. Delaware has been rated third in the nation for executions per capita (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/state-execution-rates) and 5th in the nation for death sentences per capita (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/death-sentences-capita-state). What is our frequent use of the death penalty getting us? As of 2012, according to FBI statistics, Delaware had the 8th highest murder rate in the country (http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/5tabledatadecpdf). Having the death penalty did not protect Lt. Szczerba or Patrolman Spicer. What is our active use of the death penalty costing us? We believe that it takes resources from programs that can actually reduce violent crime in Delaware and protect law enforcement officers.
We appreciate the value of the life and work of each law enforcement officer and each corrections officer. We understand that every loss of those lives is a tragedy that affects not only the family, but their fellow officers, and the society that they worked to serve and protect. We would rather prevent the death of a police officer by spending scarce resources on better staffing, training, and equipment that will actively protect officers than on a death sentence after the murderer is already in custody.
As to honoring those who have been murdered, after the murder of my brother I learned that tying the value of his life to the fate of his killer was a dangerous bet. My family found better ways to remember, value, and honor his life without having to focus on the fate of his killer and an execution that never came. With life without parole, we could focus more on my brother’s life and not always on his murder or the fate of his killer for years to come.
The information that our coalition promotes is detailed on our website www.enddeathpenaltyde.org along with corresponding references. I urge you to take a look. Better yet, I invite you to sit down with us to discuss the concerns we have in common, and how we can make Delaware smart on crime together.
Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty