By State Senator Daylin Leach
In a piece that appeared on PennLive on Jan. 6, Maureen Faulkner criticized both Governor-Elect Tom Wolf and me for our opposition to the death penalty.
Ms. Faulkner is the widow of the police officer who was murdered by Mumia Abu-Jamal, and as such, has unique standing to comment on this important issue of public policy.
Obviously, the horrors she has endured give her a valuable perspective on many facets of the criminal justice system. She raises some important points and deserves a response.
Ms. Faulkner specifically asks why a person who has taken the life of another “be allowed to keep their own life.”
There are many reasons that the death penalty, which has been eliminated throughout most of the civilized world and has recently been repealed in six states (including our neighbors New Jersey and Maryland), is an inappropriate punishment.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for rejecting capital punishment is the inevitability of executing completely innocent people.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to be reinstated, 149 people have been sent to death row and then later released after being fully exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted, most through DNA evidence. Some of these people came within hours of being executed.
Counting all crimes, over 2,000 people were found to have been wrongly convicted in the past 23 years. It is clear that our criminal justice system is imperfect.
Considering all of the innocent people who were convicted but then freed by DNA, it is extremely disturbing that DNA evidence is available in only about 15 percent of all murder cases.
Most murders are committed by guns, leaving no DNA evidence.
Thus, if there are scores of death row inmates whose innocence was proven by DNA out of the 15 percent of cases where it is available, how many innocent people are there among the 85 percent of cases in which DNA evidence is not available?
Assuming the proportion of innocent people is the same in both groups, we have sent literally hundreds of people to death row who are innocent but unable to prove that innocence. How many of those people have we killed?
Ms. Faulkner says that there is no case where it has been “proved” that an innocent person has been executed. With all due respect, that is misleading. First, in most cases, once a person is dead, people stop looking.
There is generally no funding source for the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to continue investigating a case after the defendant has been executed. And even if there was funding available in a given case, there is no forum where a person’s innocence can be “proved.”
The state does not conduct posthumous retrials of dead defendants. That said, there are a number of cases where there is very strong evidence that an innocent person was executed.
They can be found here.
Another compelling reason to eliminate the death penalty is because we simply can’t afford it. Recent studies in California and Maryland have shown that death penalty case costs between two and three million dollars more to process, try, and carry out than a non-capital murder case.
Given that we’ve processed hundreds of death penalty cases since reinstatement, simple math tells us that we are spending billions of dollars just to have a death penalty. Think of what that money could be used for instead: more effective forms of crime reduction, education, or even tax cuts.
Other reasons to eliminate the death penalty relate to the unfair, arbitrary, and racially disparate way it is administered, all of the ancillary costs of litigating issues related to capital punishment (such as what chemicals may be used for the execution), and the significant moral problems with giving a government, which many people don’t think can deliver the mail efficiently, the power to decide when to kill its own citizens in cold blood.
I can certainly understand Ms. Faulkner’s rage and desire for revenge against the man who killed her husband. I am sure I would feel the same way if I were ever in similar circumstances.
We recently lost one of my heroes, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who opposed the death penalty in all circumstances. Like me, he was frequently asked what he would do if someone he cared about was murdered.
I love his answer, which I will paraphrase. He said:
“I would pick up a baseball bat to bash the killer’s brains in myself. But before I reached him, what I hope I would do is ask myself if this would bring my loved-one back, and if I am acting in a way consistent with my religious and moral principles, and if I would want my family to see me acting this way. And I hope that before I got to the killer, I would put the baseball bat down.”
That is what we as a society must do. We must put the baseball bat down.