The Death Penalty: A Protracted Process

A recent New York Times article highlights some of the problems with the application of the death penalty in the United States. It starts with the story of Manuel Valle, who spent 33 years on death row, and discusses whether such prolonged sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the average death row inmate in this country spends over a decade awaiting execution, while many end up on death row well over 20 years. Although keeping individuals on death row for awhile is necessary in order to allow for the safety guard of an appeals process, the article points out that the U.S. stands apart from much of the rest of the world in the excessive amount of time our inmates are on death row.

Not only is living for years under the threat of imminent execution a form of psychological torment for the inmate, but it also takes a huge toll on victims’ families, and is very costly to states. The article goes on to explain that many of the death sentences that are imposed in this country are eventually overturned, though enormous amounts are spent attempting to maintain them. One study found that only five percent of the 5,826 death sentences from 1973 to 1995 were carried out in those years, and there was a 68 percent chance that death sentences in those years would eventually be overturned by the courts.

Although it seems contradictory that those on death row need and want time to appeal their cases but then argue that such a prolonged delay is cruel and unusual punishment, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer has argued that this seeming contradiction misses a larger point.  In his dissent in Manuel Valle’s case, he wrote that our current system points to “the difficulty of reconciling the imposition of the death penalty as currently administered with procedures necessary to assure that the wrong person is not executed.”

This discussion demonstrates that we cannot have it both ways: executions cannot be rushed because in our fallible system, the risk of killing an innocent person would only increase.  But we also cannot continue on our current path.  Seeking a death sentence is extremely costly to taxpayers (especially when, as discussed above, the majority will not be carried out), and having death row inmates, their families, and the families of victims await an execution for decades is torturous to all parties. We must seek alternatives.

Photo by Mr. Thomas

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