With the hourglass running down to the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, we urge the good people of Utah to examine their majority commitment to capital punishment as a just, moral and practical means of government-sanctioned punishment.
For we are far from alone in asserting that it is none of those things. The evidence supporting our view is not only persuasive but has, over time, become virtually incontestable.
Yet, as a state we continue to embrace an archaic, unfair and notoriously fallible practice in which the most notorious convicted murderers pay their debt to society in a specie that we have determined has no inherent value.
Capital punishment, compared to lifetime incarceration, is far more expensive. The cost of public defenders trained to handle death penalty cases, years of legal appeals, and the burden on the judicial system far exceeds the tax dollars necessary to house an inmate in a maximum security cell block for life. It is this fact alone that has motivated some of the 15 states that have abolished capital punishment and roughly a dozen others that are considering doing so.
But the economics of the death penalty are secondary to the moral and human cost of retaining a system that has always been unevenly applied. It is beyond argument that racial minorities and the poor are much more likely to face execution than whites from the middle and upper classes. It also is widely acknowledged that executions have no deterrent value.
Since 1994, when the national number of death penalty cases rose to an annual high of 328, that rate has fallen by 63 percent to the lowest number since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Much of that decline can be attributed to the high-profile impact of cases in which DNA evidence has later exonerated death row inmates, many of whom were sentenced to be executed on the basis of eyewitness testimony.
It is impossible to know how many wrongfully convicted inmates have gone to their deaths, but the Death Penalty Information Center puts at 129 the number of those who have been released from death row since 1977 based on new evidence.
Ronnie Lee Gardner murdered two people in 1985. But that fact really is not germane to whether we should retain capital punishment. In deciding that question, we should ask ourselves this question: Do our outrage and natural desire for revenge alone justify retaining a broken and bankrupt system?