Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Room Rates are High at the Gray Bar Hotel

Murderers fall into three categories as near as I can tell: Those who murder as a result of their insanity; those who murder in a fit of passion; and those who are fully sane, knowing precisely what they’re up to, and in the coldest and most dispassionate frame of mind, plot and scheme and murder believing they can get away with it.

None of these killers is deterred by the death penalty.

Crazy people don’t think ahead to the consequences of their deadly acts. Instead they listen to the voices. They remove the tin foil from their bonnets just long enough to tune in to the vibes of the “insider” who pinpoints their enemies. They are not discouraged by a chamber or a chair out of their radar’s range.

A fit of passion might seize an otherwise sane person. Perhaps, in a moment of extreme stress, he explodes outside his own control. That may be temporary insanity, (see above), or it may be rage at the overwhelming machine that controls him.

We can speculate as to the sources of this rage, but no matter; he is not, in that white-hot moment, dissuaded by a rational thought of what will happen to him if he kills. Engulfed by an incomprehensible internal firestorm, he lashes out and murders. The death penalty is impotent in that moment.

Finally, we have the calculating killer. Too smart. Smarter, at least in his own estimation, than all those around him. Smarter, so he believes, better prepared, and more thorough than law enforcement, stealthier than forensic science. Morals are no issue for this mind. His goal to free himself of a perceived hindrance drives him. He will not be entangled by any legal means of achieving his goal as this could deprive him of his possessions. Think Scott Peterson.

No penalty will deter such a person, one who believes himself invincible and superior to all.

Enter our economic recession and California Assemblyperson Loni Hancock with a proposal to scrap the death penalty. It’s accompanied by the not-so-new news that in California we can save $184 million dollars a year, a year!, by replacing death penalty sentences with life-with-no-chance-of-parole sentences. Presumably the numbers are similar in other death penalty states.

I’ve never seen an item-by-item break down explaining why it’s so much more expensive to house a death penalty inmate than a life-without-parole inmate, though I’m sure someone somewhere could explain it to someone else’s satisfaction. Is his cell more secure? Doubtful. Were there competitive bids? That seems doubtful too.

Nevertheless, if we accept the statement of potential savings, and the failure of the death penalty to deter murderers, we face a challenge to our system and our sensibilities.

Include the fact that since 1978, fully thirty-three years ago, we have executed only 13 inmates. Seven hundred more remain on death row. I don’t know the average age of a murderer, but an actuarial table might suggest that the death penalty equates to life without parole in about 98% of the cases. At $184 million, those 700 are housed at nearly $263K per year each.

Could it be that delays in carrying out the death penalty figure into the twisted mindset of a potential murderer? Evil people think in evil ways. Maybe they figure, “Why not? They’ll never get around to killing me anyway.”

But before we dispose of the needle, we must address the need for retribution. Death penalty laws, at least in part, grew out of the human impulse toward revenge. Murderers kill and in turn should be killed.

We relate to the outrage of Mark Klaas speaking about the man who raped and killed his daughter, whom we all anguished for, Polly. “He was sentenced to die according to California law. And now someone has drafted a law to spare his life!?”

Could you be satisfied with a solid life sentence in such a case? How about for $184 million?

If $184 million funneled away from death row inmates every year, and instead went into our schools and our infrastructure every year, could we bear knowing that those killers lived on for all their days in fear and degradation in the cold gray hellholes we’ve built for them?

What is the price of retribution? What is its value?

Can we set aside revenge? It’s cheaper to “care for” a murderer than it is to kill him --- maybe more cost effective for our souls too.

Or we can all go broke and blind.