A matter of life and death: rethinking the death penalty and its true cost

July 25, 2015

 

**First appeared on kfoxtv.com**

 

An eye for an eye

 

Last month Bostonians collectively held their breath as Judge George O’Toole sentenced 21-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the marathon bombings. For some like Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a professional ballroom dancer who lost her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing, this was a welcome verdict. It was the type of justice she has been hoping for since life as she knew it was ripped away from her that sunny Monday afternoon.

 

For others like Denise and Bill Richard, whose 8-year-old son Martin died in the blasts, life in prison would have been preferable. That’s because of how the modern justice system works.

 

“We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives,” the couple wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed.

 

The Richards understand that each time an appeal is brought up, there is a possibility they could be called back to the courtroom to face their son’s admitted killer. Their son’s name could be used or his tattered, bloodstained clothing could be brought back as evidence.

 

Even if the family is not asked to return to face Tsarnaev, the media will be there, covering the entire process and posting pictures of Tsarnaev and his victims each time a decision is made. There really is no way to get away from it. That is the Richards' take on the death penalty anyway.

 

The couple say they want to remember their son’s life and not dwell on his untimely death. They also don’t want to drag their other two children through more years of pain, which the lengthy appeals process will inevitably bring with it.

 

However, the Richard family might be in the minority for having that opinion.

 

For many other Americans, both people who were at that finish line and others who were not, it’s about justice, no matter how long it takes to achieve or how emotionally taxing it is on the victims.

 

An eye for an eye. Tsarnaev needs to pay with blood for the blood he spilled.

 

Doing away with the death penalty

 

More and more, experts are calling the effectiveness of the death penalty into question, from the humaneness of the process to the costs associated with each death.

 

It’s something the state of Nebraska has begun paying attention to. Nebraska has not executed an inmate since 1997, despite having 10 people currently sitting on death row.

 

In May, the state legislature overwhelmingly voted to repeal capital punishment and commute the sentences of the men serving on death row to life in prison instead.

 

Gov. Pete Ricketts did everything in his power to go against that vote; he vetoed the bill and raised money to buy more lethal injection drugs (one of the main reasons the issue came to a head this year). But the veto was overridden and Nebraska became the 19th state to do away with capital punishment for good.

 

Human rights advocates celebrated while Gov. Ricketts lamented. Now, some are calling for Missouri to outlaw executions as well.

 

Aside from all the contentiousness, the fact that the governor contributed vast sums of money to groups seeking a referendum on the bill and his promise to continue executions, the reason Nebraska decided to abandon the death penalty was more practical than moral. The state ran out of the sodium thiopental drugs needed to perform executions back in 2013 and hasn’t been able to find another supplier since.

 

Digging into the deadly dose
 
European companies had been the main supplier for many states’ drugs until the European public found out and protested. The death penalty is illegal in Europe and it didn’t sit well with the public that, while they might not be participating in the practice themselves, they were condoning it by providing the ingredients for the lethal cocktail to the U.S. 
 
Now, to go into just a little depth about the drugs themselves, their original purpose is not to kill people. Potassium chloride is used to boost potassium levels in a person’s blood. But if administered in high levels, it can be lethal. This is the drug that actually stops the convict’s heart. Without the other two, the injection of this into a person would be an incredibly painful death. 
 
That’s why there are two other drugs in the lethal cocktail, one to sedate the person and another to immobilize their muscles. The second drug is usually vecuronium, pancuronium or another neuromuscular blocking agent. These drugs were originally intended to keep a person from contracting and are often used in surgery in order to get a breathing tube down a person’s throat more easily, according to Forbes writer David Kroll.
 
In the execution process, however, these drugs are used to keep the convict still so the audience doesn’t have to see them writhing in pain. It also stops the convict’s breathing. 
 
Finally, a barbiturate is used such as thiopental or pentobarbital. These are drugs meant for anesthesia. In lower doses, some can be used as an anti-anxiety medication. They can also be used to sedate a person during surgery. Like the others, this was not originally intended to be a lethal injection drug and, also like the others, it can be independently deadly in high doses. 
 
There is only one supplier of sodium thiopental in the U.S. and that plant stopped production back in 2009. Therefore, the main producer of the drug is Europe and when authorities discovered that pharmaceutical companies there were selling the drugs to the U.S. to help execute people, they were not pleased. 
 
So, the companies stopped selling the drugs to the U.S., the stocks dried up or expired and now there is a massive shortage and a growing list of death row inmates. 
 
That’s the quagmire Nebraskan lawmakers found themselves in when they decided enough was enough and it was time to find another way to punish these prisoners. 
 
In a last ditch effort to continue the death penalty, Gov. Ricketts spent $55,000 to obtain two of the necessary drugs from a distributor in India. The pharmacy Gov. Ricketts obtained the drugs from, HarrisPharma, has a questionable legal history and it itself obtained those drugs from Europe. 
 
Back in 2011, HarrisPharma was asked to return the drugs to the Swiss when the country found out who India was selling them to and for what purpose. So, it looks like another dead end when it comes to procuring lethal injection drugs. 
 
When the death penalty is deemed inhumane
 
There is a delicate balance that is struck with the injection of these three drugs. Over the past year, we have started to hear stories about what happens when something goes wrong. Last April, career criminal and convicted killer Clayton Lockett died a slow and painful death. It took 40 minutes for Lockett to pass away after he writhed in pain, tried to break free from the gurney and even spoke.
 
In Ohio, witnesses reported that Dennis McGuire snorted, heaved, clenched his fists and gasped for air during his execution and in Arizona, Joseph Wood took nearly two hours to die. He was seen gasping throughout the execution. 
 
These horror stories have caused advocacy groups to call these executions human experimentation. Many doctors do not condone these types of executions and refuse to participate in them. Even the American Medical Association’s code of ethics states that physicians should not participate in executions or even supervise them. 
 
But, regardless, if there is a will, there is a way and someone inevitably steps forward to take part. 
 
What the public doesn’t know won’t hurt them
 
Because obtaining lethal injection drugs has become so difficult and controversial, some states are doing what they can to enact secrecy laws. If the public cannot find out who provided the drugs, there will not be any backlash for the company that cooperates. 
 
Most of the  31 states that still allow executions have some sort of law in place that prohibits the public and media from uncovering where it came from, how much a particular state has on hand, when the drugs expire, how it was tested or even which lethal cocktail will be used.

 

But a few have shown a willingness to move away from these laws. In Missouri, a judge recently ruled that the department of corrections cannot withhold information about the execution drugs. This ruling came after numerous media outlets bonded together to sue the state for the right to know. 
 
The judge ruled that the department of corrections was violating the Sunshine Law by withholding the information. That ruling could set the stage for other lawsuits in states with similar laws.
 
 Despite this, Texas is working harder than ever to keep the information under wraps. A bill to ensure the suppliers’ secrecy was overwhelmingly passed in the House and Senate this year and sent to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, where he promptly signed it into law. 
 
This was a complete about-face for Gov. Abbott, who as the state’s attorney general originally opined that the information should be disclosed. Now, he is one of the biggest champions for its secrecy. 
 
Returning to the old ways
 
The shortage of lethal drugs has caused some states to rethink their execution methods. In March, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a law allowing the use of a firing squad in executions once again. That’s because the state is completely out of execution drugs. 
 
There are currently eight men on death row in Utah; four of them have chosen lethal injection and three have selected the firing squad. 
 
Oklahoma also allows firing squads as an option as well, but only if lethal injection and electrocutions are not possible first. Three states still have hanging as an option, five states allow the gas chamber to be used and eight states still permit electrocution. Lethal injection is the preferable method in all of those states but there are backup options. 
 
How the U.S. stacks up with other nations and why Texas is on top
 
The U.S. is increasingly moving into the minority when it comes to countries that exercise the death penalty. According to a global report released by Amnesty International, the countries with the highest death penalties are China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the United States. 
 
Some 41 percent of the U.S.’s executions in 2013 happened right here in Texas. 
 
There are currently 261 inmates on death row in Texas with the two oldest cases dating back to 1975, meaning two men have been sitting on death row waiting to be executed for 40 years. 
 
According to the Texas Tribune, the average inmate spends 13 years and six months on death row. 
 
Now, to go into a little more detail about the demographic breakdown, 44 percent are black despite the fact that African-Americans make up just 12 percent of the state’s overall population. Another 28 percent of death row inmates are Hispanic, meaning the total minority population on death row is 69 percent. 
 
But, it appears the appetite for the death penalty might be subsiding in the Lone Star State.

Last year, only 10 people were executed in the state, which is the lowest number of executions to take place since 1996, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. That is a stark difference from the 40 people who were executed in 2000.
 
Also, fewer people are being sentenced to death. That rate has dropped 80 percent since 1999. Another trend that is gradually beginning to gain momentum with evolving technology and refined techniques is the number of exonerations. 
 
Since 1973, 155 people have been released from death row nationwide, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Thirteen of those people were exonerated right here in Texas. Most recently, Alfred Brown was released from death row in Harris County after the Texas Court of Appeals threw out his conviction. 
 
There is also evidence to suggest that a number of people who were executed were innocent, according to the group. However, the executions are irreversible and those men never lived to see their names cleared. 
 
Conversely, there is very little evidence to support claims that the threat of the death penalty actually deters crime. 
 
“We’re very hard-pressed to find really strong evidence of deterrence,” Columbia Law School’s Jeffrey Fagan told the Washington Post. 

 

From trial to tombstone, a look at the true cost of killing
 
Little by little, it looks like states are choosing life sentences over death. Part of the reason might be the cost. From trial to tombstone, the cost of executing an inmate is three times higher than putting them in a maximum-security prison for life, according to The Dallas Morning News. Some have put the cost much higher.
 
“It’s 10 times more expensive to kill them than to keep them alive,” Judge Donald McCartin (aka the Hanging Judge of Orange County) told Forbes. 
 
It’s not the drugs that make these cases so expensive, it’s the trial. It’s a result of the lengthy appeals process every inmate is guaranteed when they are convicted and sentenced to death. 
 
A recent Seattle University study found that death penalty trials cost $1 million more on average than a case with life imprisonment as an option. In Washington, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that the cost was about $24 million per execution. This is an extreme example. 
 
In Colorado, a 2013 study by the ACLU found that it costs taxpayer about $3.5 million per death penalty trial versus the $150,000 price tag for trials that have life without parole as an option. 
 
The death penalty discussion comes at an important time in Colorado with the trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes. Last week, the jury concluded that Holmes was sane at the time of the massacre and convicted him on 24 murder counts as well as 140 attempted murder counts. This week, the penalty phase begins, which could result in a death sentence. 
 
Also this week, the U.S. attorney general’s office announced that it will levy 33 charges against the accused Charleston, South Carolina,church shooter, Dylan Roof. South Carolina has no laws when it comes to hate crimes so the federal government stepped in. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has not yet said whether the government will seek the death penalty in this case. However, it is a very real possibility. 
 
So it seems despite the exorbitant costs, the questionable drugs and the increasing number of exonerations, there is still a big appetite for blood in the U.S. 
 
Trials like Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarneav or Holmes or Roof always boost media ratings when they are covered for hours upon hours. The American public can’t seem to takes its eyes off of the screen when they happen. But at what point does America’s lust to invoke the death penalty become too costly to be tenable? That’s a question we may not get the answer to in the next year or five years or even within the next decade. But it is a question worth asking and one we will likely have to seriously consider in our lifetime.

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