Bob Bestler

Bestler | Time has run out for the death penalty

In our 40 years of marriage, my wife and I have always disagreed on one major issue -- capital punishment.

I have always been against it; she has believed it is the proper punishment for the most heinous crimes.

We don't discuss it much, which I think is one reason for those 40 years of relative bliss.

For a long time my view was the minority view in this country. It still is, but the times they are a'changin'.

According to one recent poll, most Americans still favor the death penalty, but support is dwindling. In 1994, 80 percent supported capital punishment; last year, the number had dropped to 63 percent.

That was before we watched, last month, as the conservative state legislature in Nebraska defied the veto of a conservative governor and made a ban on capital punishment permanent.

In a followup cover story on that seismic event, Time magazine called the death penalty “a failed experiment” and offered several reasons why it believes its days are numbered in the United States.

For one thing, we're not very good at it. We're not just talking about bungled executions and the growing refusal of drug manufacturers to make medicine designed to kill. We're also talking about the flawed legal process that keeps people on death row for years -- as well as the number of death row inmates who are found innocent after all those years.

Support for capital punishment rises and falls depending on the crime rate and in recent years, the nation's crime rate has plunged. In the 1950s and early 1960s, in fact, support fell to its lowest point ever, 42 percent.

It has never been fairly applied. Historically, race has been a major factor in assigning the death penalty; today, it is more a matter of money. Those who can afford the best set of defense lawyers don't get the death penalty. Can you say O.J.?

Meanwhile, state governments are going broke in their use of the death penalty.

The author of the Time article, David Von Drehle, studied Florida's death penalty and found that seeing death sentences through to execution cost six times more than a life sentence. Another study found that North Carolina could save $11 million a year without the death penalty. Similar conclusions were found in other death penalty states.

Another problem is the lack of a guiding principle for handing out a death sentence. It is mostly given randomly, depending on the judge -- while always putting a heavy burden on the judge.

Even conservative judges are rethinking the death penalty. Here's one, Judge Tom Price of the Texas Court of Criminal appeals:

“Having spent the last 40 years as a judge for the state of Texas, of which the last 18 years have been as a judge on this court, I have given a substantial amount of consideration to the propriety of the death penalty as a form of punishment for those who commit capital murder, and I now believe that it should be abolished.”

I would only add one more reason. The United States is about the only Western nation still clinging to the death penalty. Every European nation, except for Russia and Belarus, long ago abolished capital punishment. The Nebraska action suggests we might be getting ready to catch up.

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