Push for Capital Punishment Reform before Abolition

prison_cellThe recent shortage of execution drugs as well as the surge in pending death penalty cases has widened the gap even further between supporters and opponents of capital punishment. Searching for lethal injection alternatives and seeking nationwide abolition are on opposite ends of the political spectrum; consequently, capital punishment is still a highly contested topic amongst politicians and taxpayers to this day. Although the average number of people against the death penalty has increased considerably over the last decade, the Pew Research Center reports a clear divide with over fifty percent of those surveyed favoring capital punishment for convicted murderers. This is indicative of the ongoing struggle America has in finding common ground. Such conflict originates from uncertainty and at the very least, we as citizens should not be so quick to choose sides and instead, familiarize ourselves with the current system to better grasp why it stands the way it does today. The death penalty is far too complex to limit its scope with binary perspective, a dated frame of mind that has hindered any chances of agreement by those completely for and against executions. Especially since revolutionizing what our country has been practicing for centuries is a recurrent theme in this day and age, the present is truly a pivotal time to consider capital punishment reform to fix compelling issues, focusing particularly on the process itself including conditions warranting special trials, its cost, and exoneration. This approach of gradual change by addressing key problems will hopefully foster joint effort from opposing sides to work toward improving the system.

Capital punishment is currently legal in 32 states and according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the crime punishable by the death penalty is first-degree murder and may require aggravating factors in addition to the main offense. The variance between states in what merits the death sentence is one of the primary and outstanding inconsistencies with the criminal justice system. More specifically, past cases involving special considerations of the convicted murderer have proven to be a slippery slope in terms of whether we should allow exceptions for executions. Opposition to the death penalty was greatest for juveniles and the mentally disabled where majority were strongly against executing people who fall within these demographics. That being said, the controversy certainly stems from the fact that the current system does not standardize exceptions for all states, meaning protocol can vary depending on where the person is tried. Should an exemption be made for the mentally disabled, the screening process for retardation or illness must be reliable and heavily enforced.

Take, for example, the case of Freddie Lee Hall, a 68-year-old Florida inmate who is guilty of raping and murdering a pregnant woman in 1978 and has since been on death row for over three decades. On the account that Hall was intellectually disabled, resentencing was in question after he was administered several IQ tests over a period of time and received scores ranging from 60 to 80. The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the mentally impaired could not be executed and Hall was thereby exempted based on Florida’s threshold score of 70. The issue was their lack of specificity on how they quantified mental retardation and as a result, in early March 2014, the court will revisit this ban to determine if Hall’s diagnosis was accurate to finalize his sentence. Authorities claim Hall is not mentally retarded based on his previous IQ scores whereas psychiatrists and psychologists argue intelligence tests alone do not suffice in conclusively determining impairment. States allowing capital punishment, such as Georgia, have even stricter policies for proving intellectual disability whereas others do not impose IQ tests for assessment. This debate on who is considered mentally challenged needs immediate clarification and begins with enforcing a set standard in which all states are required to abide by. Proper screening is equally crucial; the process should be composed of a combination of tests as well as evaluation by professionals for maximum diagnostic accuracy.

In addition, restructuring involves reducing the high cost of the death penalty, one of the leading reasons for capital punishment opposition. It is important to note that “cost” `is not only measured by money but also time. The Death Penalty Research Center estimated an average of 12.7 years between sentencing and execution, a substantial increase compared to the recorded seven years in 1990. The report averaged over $100 million spent annually on the death penalty for each state, covering the entire process from pre-trial to incarceration on death row. Execution drugs are costly and as of today, states spend up to two thousand dollars on merely five grams of drugs, which hikes up the total cost if we were to include the operating equipment required during lethal injection administration. Coupled with the prolonged time leading up to an actual execution date, it is not surprising to learn there is a major backlog of inmates on death row with California having the greatest in the country totaling to 639 inmates as of 2005. Nationwide, there are over three thousand inmates waiting execution. Expenditures are directly correlated with the extended delay inmates experience and solving the issue would mean finding efficient dispatch without sacrificing fairness and accuracy. Shortly after former California governor Pete Wilson’s push for death penalty reform, opponents to capital punishment mocked the idea by coining the term “fast-track execution” and predicts an increase the number of exoneration rates. This is why the government should thoroughly weigh alternatives such as Wilson’s proposal without shortcutting critical steps (e.g. appointing qualified counsel) so as to give the defendant the right to fair trial as required by the Constitution. The legal process itself accounts for over forty percent of the total cost according to a 2011 study performed by Judge Arthur L. Alarcón. It is possible if we devoted more efforts into lowering pre-trial and trial costs, the financial difference between the death penalty and life in prison would be insignificant and thus, doubts about capital punishment might be lowered.

Contrary to belief, death row exoneration, or when a person is proven innocent after being convicted of a crime, is not common. Even so, there is still strong opposition towards the death penalty due to the danger of executing innocent people. While the general exoneration rates have hit a record high in 2013, less than ten percent actually involve defendants sentenced to death as stated in studies done by the National Registry of Exonerations. Scientific advancement contributed appreciably in preventing mistrial and the Innocence Project is one of the many organizations founded to give prisoners the opportunity to be proven innocent through DNA testing. While this technology is relatively new, a total of 18 inmates serving time on death row were exonerated by DNA testing or other forensic techniques.

Kirk Noble Bloodsworth offers his testimony on the experience in a recently published CNN article. The gripping journey to his exoneration sheds light on the leading points of weaknesses with the capital punishment system. In 1984, Bloodsworth was wrongfully charged of rape and murder. Although there was no physical evidence, the jury sentenced him to death within a few short hours of trial based on witness reports. It was not until 1994 when the judge declared Bloodsworth innocent after discovering the DNA did not match the one found on the victim.

Bloodsworth’s story offers a jumping point on where officials can begin to strengthen the system. Reducing exoneration rates raises the demand for solidifying the trial process and a need to avoid eyewitness misidentification. A myriad of ways for cross-checking facts during investigation are available and should be utilized to their entirety to prevent hasty convictions such as Bloodsworth’s trial. Again, reducing the time lapse does not mean rushing the process; instead, the government must develop an efficient protocol or guideline for cases potentially seeking capital punishment. An example to a developing reexamination of death penalty procedures is Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus of Kansas City and her proposal to create an 11-member commission for executions. The plan outlines required members of the commission, a time frame for investigation, and protocol for purchasing execution drugs to address the shortage. Pushing for capital punishment reform is a realistic approach, especially with the technology and advancements made in criminal justice, and is a stepping stone before our country can even think about nationwide abolition.

The trials of Freddie Lee Hall and Kirk Noble Bloodsworth are just a small percentage of cases the government can analyze to work out the kinks to the currently faulty capital punishment system. Redefining standards and implementing new ones as we see fit is the first step to reform. As illustrated with Hall’s trial, fully committing to a protocol for mental retardation assessment can clear up any discrepancies or inconsistencies with rulings. While the ideal scenario would be to have the same guidelines throughout all states that currently legalize the death penalty, it is sufficient and beneficial for prosecutors to formulate a criterion for mental disability. In terms of the cost, expenditures can be lowered if the government were to focus in on which processes are absolutely necessary for trial so as to shorten the time period between sentencing and execution. Doing so will reduce backlog of inmates on death row caused by delay and decrease the amount needed to fund the system itself – perhaps even to the point where it is cheaper and more economical than death penalty alternatives such as life in prison. Efficient dispatch should be worked on in conjunction with ensuring exonerations are kept to a minimum to prevent cases of wrongful conviction, hence resolving the main reasons for the capital punishment dispute: sentencing the innocent and high cost. Once we all agree on where the system has failed and what can be done to solve underlying issues, we can hopefully close the gap between opposing sides and use the common ground as a means of collaboratively improving the current system.

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