Rod St. Aubyn: The Not So Quick Death Penalty


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I recently had a friendly but spirited debate with someone about me being pro-life, but also being in support of capital punishment. I was accused of being a hypocrite. I pointed out that my friend was then also a hypocrite because he was supportive of abortion rights, but strongly opposed to the death penalty.

I must admit that my feelings about the death penalty have evolved somewhat over time. I have observed in newspaper stories many instances when convicted individuals were later exonerated after DNA testing or other evidence had since been discovered to prove their innocence. In non-capital offenses, many of these individuals were reimbursed by their states for their wrongful incarceration. That is appropriate for those individuals, but what if the person was wrongfully executed for a murder that they did not commit? Last week I read about an Oklahoma appeals court that halted a planned execution of a murderer hours before he was to be put to death, granting a 2 week delay so they can consider this new evidence.

We all recall old westerns shows and movies which showed quick justice if it did not result in an earlier lynching. Immaterial, justice seemed to be rather quick in those early days. That has changed so much today.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]The death penalty is not a quick justice, but due to the ultimate consequences it probably shouldn’t be.[/mks_pullquote]

Personally I am supportive of the death penalty for especially torturous and heinous murders and murders of children and young adults when there is ample and irrefutable evidence to prove that the convicted murderer was guilty. I personally think that the death penalty should be applied very sparingly based on my earlier parameters. Otherwise, life in prison without the possibility of parole is fine with me. I fully understand the argument made by others that the cost of incarcerating someone for life is extremely costly and poses many risks to correction staff and potentially to the public if the inmate escapes. After all, the inmate has nothing to lose by harming others or trying to escape. Perhaps injuring a correction officer or attempting to escape by an inmate sentenced to life imprisonment should be a capital offense. After all, they were already given one judicial chance.

And I don’t argue that the sentence can be a deterrent. I just consider the sentence to be justice.

The cost of executing a prisoner is also not cheap often costing many millions of dollars in legal fees that we taxpayers must pay. In addition it often takes years before all appeals are exhausted. It is not uncommon for a death row prisoner to die in prison before they are ever executed. In fact, the average time on death row was in the mid 6 years in the mid 80’s and has now increased to more than 16 years in 2012 according to the Bureau of Justice statistics. Appeals are getting more and more creative. It is not uncommon for appeals for “death by injection” to be made based on the type of drug that is being used arguing that an ineffective drug creates “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The number of actual executions in the US has actually decreased in recent years, peaking at 98 in 1999 and has steadily decreased to 46 in 2010. Whether this has changed due to public opinion is unknown, but the support for the death penalty has been waning in recent years.

We had our first death penalty sentence in ND in almost a century when Alfonso Rodriguez was sentenced to death (federal charges) in a federal trial in 2006 after Mr. Rodriguez was convicted of kidnapping, raping, and murdering Dru Sjodin, a 22 year old UND student. After endless appeals and court hearings, many legal experts predict that the most recent habeas corpus hearing in early September could be the final legal maneuver left available for Rodriguez. His defense attorneys are claiming some juror misconduct in the trial. Whether they are successful will be known in the near future.

Depending upon the outcome of that hearing will determine if final justice will proceed for Mr. Rodriguez – almost 12 years after the brutal murder of Dru Sjodin that shocked us all. Compared to the average, the 9 years since the sentencing is far shorter than most, but as they say “it’s not over til it is over.” The death penalty is not a quick justice, but due to the ultimate consequences it probably shouldn’t be. I just hope for victim families in the future that the average time on death row doesn’t get even longer than it is now.