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The Hidden Costs of the Death Penalty

The controversial execution of Troy Davis last week in Georgia ignited outrage around the world while injecting renewed attention across America into the propriety of the death penalty, particularly in Davis-like cases where there is evidence of innocence or serious reason for doubt about guilt.

Despite the outrage over the execution of Davis though, an overarching reality is that most people don’t give a rusty-darn about debates over the death penalty.

Most folks don’t give a flick about conceptions of justice because they are just trying to make it, often barely, day-to-day.

But there is a reality about the death penalty that too few people properly appreciate: it ain’t an out-of-sight/out-of-mind circumstance impacting only families of murder victims, the death-sentenced inmate and narrow interests on either side of the pro-con execution divide.

The death penalty, besides that constantly raised “morality” thing, is a money thing that picks the pockets of all Americans, regardless of their support for or opposition to execution.

California, for example, spent $4 billion between 1978 and 2010 on its death penalty.

Huge sums of public monies pumped into death penalty prosecutions is money siphoned out of providing needed services like funding public service jobs for the unemployed or funding health care so people don’t die from tooth problems.

Yes, tooth problems! A 24-year-old unemployed Cincinnati father died in early September 2011 from a tooth infection because this man without health insurance couldn’t afford either to have a wisdom tooth pulled or buy medication to treat his infected tooth.

Much of the framing of death penalty debate revolves around mortality: should a civilized society (as America alleges to be) engage in such an uncivilized practice?

An Exhibit A of the immoral hypocrisy in executing the death penalty is an antic of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During this film star’s two-terms as California’s Republican governor Schwarzenegger signed death warrants sending folks to the execution chamber.

Schwarzenegger defended his decisions as morally and legally proper even as he lived the arguable immoral lie of marital infidelity: secretly raising the love-child son of a woman who worked in his personal household for twenty-years.

That woman and Schwarzenegger’s wife even had sons within days of each other in October 1997 – both boys raised around each other without revelation of having a common father.

In December 2005 Schwarzenegger rejected massive requests worldwide to grant clemency to death row inmate Stan “Tookie” Williams, a co-founder of the violent Crips street gang, whose in-prison anti-gang transformation led to many accolades, including Williams’ receipt of an award from then President George W. Bush moths before in September 2005.

Schwarzenegger’s clemency rejection letter lectured Williams that “without atonement…there can be no redemption…” a pompous declaration from a man who didn’t atone with his wife until early 2011, after she discovered his decade-plus secret love affair.

Schwarzenegger’s marital infidelity and the murder convictions placing Williams on death row are no way comparable in terms of wrongful acts but Arnold injected the morality element into that clemency rejection.

Schwarzenegger’s letter denying Williams clemency contained a disgusting rant against persons listed in the dedication section of one of Williams’ many prison-authored books.

This particular dedication list that peeved Schwarzenegger included Nelson Mandela and Geronimo ji-Jaga – both of whom were classic political prisoners, each imprisoned unjustly for fighting against institutional racism.

Anti-apartheid luminary and former South African president Mandela and Black Panther Party member Pratt each suffered over two decades of harsh imprisonment respectively.

Pratt endured his injustice in California framed for a murder by police as part of an illegal FBI covert operation. Pratt received a $4.5-million settlement from Los Angeles and federal government officials for his false imprisonment in 2000 three years before Schwarzenegger’s first election as California governor.

Yes there are common decency questions about capital punishment in America–a country that routinely lectures “lesser” nations of the world about morality.

However beyond the common sense of morality there’s just plain dollars and cents.

As the Washington, DC-based Death Penalty Information Center accurately notes, the cost of death penalty prosecutions vastly exceeds the cost of murder prosecutions that lead to sentences of life in prison.

A study in Kansas found the average expenditure on death penalty prosecutions from trial through execution to be $1.26-million, a sum 70 percent higher than for non-death penalty murder prosecutions.

Tennessee’s death penalty costs are 48-percent higher than for life imprisonment.

A University of North Carolina study listed death penalty trial costs at $250,000 versus $40,000-$60,000 for non-capital murder trials.

Given the budget deficit troubles wrecking state governments nationwide, can America continue to afford its death penalty obsession?

Can deficit-hobbled California continue spending $135 million per year on its death penalty system when lack of revenue requires it to lay off police, prison guards and teachers – especially when the latter group’s work in improving education reduces crime more effectively than police thus reducing the need for prison guards?

New Jersey suspended its death penalty a few years ago after finding out the state spent $253-million between 1983-2005 to obtain sixty death sentences, fifty of which were later overturned by courts.

No wonder the spineless supporters of the death penalty in Pennsylvania’s legislature – a state adjacent to NJ – refuse to approve a cost analysis of capital punishment in the Keystone State.

Those legislators fear public exposure for their derelict squandering of money on the death penalty. The ACLU reported in July 2007 that courts had overturned 200 death sentences in Pennsylvania from 1978-2007.

Fiscally strapped Pennsylvania, incidentally, boasts the nation’s fourth largest death row, with 211 denizens – 85 from the state’s largest city Philadelphia, according to state prison statistics.

The world’s best known death row inmate, journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, has sat on death row for nearly thirty-years under a controversial conviction for killing a white Philadelphia policeman.

Studies of Philadelphia’s death penalty process show that blacks in that city are nearly four-times more likely to get the death penalty than whites. While blacks are less than eleven percent of Pennsylvania’s population they comprise over half (122) of that state’s death row – making its death row more segregated that most Deep South states.

The murder of a white off-duty policeman sent Troy Davis to death row.

While opponents of Davis’ execution cited the specter of racism supporters of executing the Davis’ death sentence countered that two members of the five-person Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles that rejected clemency are black including the Board chairman, James A. Donald. The last time that Board commuted a death sentence to life in prison (May 2008) involved a white man who plead guilty to brutally murdering his former employer.

Should the state of Texas continue pouring an average of $2.3-million into each of its many death penalty prosecutions when that state ranks fourth among the top five states nationwide with households experiencing serious hunger – yes, Third World-style, not-enough- food-to-eat/go-to-sleep-hungry type hunger?

Texas Gov Rick Perry preens on the GOP presidential nomination trail as a big death penalty hero for having presided over 234 executions as of early September. That’s over half a billion dollars he’s wasted killing just over two hundred human beings, some of whom were not even guilty according to credible evidence.

Is Perry really an effective fiscal conservative if he willingly wastes that kind of money on executions that do not really improve the lives of over 90 percent of his state’s citizens, either tangibly or intangibly?

America remains in that cesspool of nations worldwide that still practice the death penalty–all of which are ‘lesser’ nations, with the exception of China – that economically and militarily dominant nation that is stepping firmly into super-power status. And of course America’s obsession with killing people also adds to the country’s mounting debt crisis.

The theory that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder and mayhem has flawed factual foundation.

If the death penalty deterred murder, then Philadelphia should be among America’s safest cities, given the penchant for that punishment there, particularly under former District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Over half of the Philadelphians (85) on Pennsylvania’s crowded death row entered that zone during Abraham’s tenure from 1991-2010.

Yet Philadelphia is not even among the Top Ten Safest Cities on the list released last October by Forbes.com.

And with Texas executing more people than any state in America, Texas cities should dominate that Forbes list but they don’t. Only one Texas town made the list and it was the up-scale city of Plano, a corporate headquarters saturated/high-median-income suburb of Dallas.

The thirty-four of America’s fifty states that retain the death penalty do not have crime rates significantly lower than states that do not have the death penalty.

America’s second Attorney General and death penalty supporter, lawyer/jurist William Bradford, wrote an essay in 1793, condemning the notion of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime in his state of Pennsylvania.

That essay by Bradford led to a reduction in the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty in Pennsylvania, which at the time extended beyond murder to include burglary, sex with animals and witchcraft.

Over 130 persons have been exonerated from death rows around America upon acceptance of evidence of innocence, including five in Georgia, where the probably innocent Troy Davis was killed by the state last week.

LINN WASHINGTON, JR. is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader-supported alternative online newspaper.


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Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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