Capital Punishment: A New and Improved Decision?

One of the best parts of being a mystery writer is attending Mystery Writers of America meetings. Granted, I’m not a full-fledged member yet, but I’m working towards it and thrilled that they allow unpublished authors to attend. Each meeting of the Southwest chapter has a guest speaker presenting an aspect of mystery writing, the writers’ life or craft, or information regarding publishing. The meeting this month featured Patricia Springer, who writes true crime, and has nine books published about criminals who are (or were) on death row. I took pages of notes, and got a lot of information that I know will help me as I research and write my novels. But, more than a week later, I’m still processing some comments that resulted from the Q & A at the end of Pat’s presentation. She was asked whether, after all her research and time interviewing death row inmates, she favored the death penalty or not.

Now, I understand this is a topic that everyone takes very personally, and is really difficult to debate. As a matter of fact, when I taught English Composition, I did not allow students to write research papers about the death penalty or abortion because those two topics had been addressed ad nauseum, and turned into emotional preaching rather that true debates. But I was surprised to hear Pat’s reasons, with facts and statistics, in addition to her impressions. Those facts have caused me to rethink an issue that I thought was set in my mind. I am also thinking that if some of this information is new to me, it might be new to others as well.

I live in Texas, a state which does have the death penalty, and I have been comfortable supporting it. I believed it was a deterrent, a fair consequence for those who committed multiple murders, and more cost effective and punitive than life without parole. Pat’s comments made me reconsider and do more research.

  • Pat said capital punishment is not a deterrent because every murderer she has interviewed over her career committed their crime under the influence of drugs or alcohol and couldn’t have cared less about the consequences at the time. My research also shows that the majority of the more than three thousand inmates on death row in the United States admitted to a history of addiction and being high at the time of the crime. Pat also has a background in psychology and noted that each of her subjects suffered some form of personality disorder. The research I read this week not only talks about the prevalence of these disorders, but of various mental illnesses among criminals. Due to these disorders, none of Pat’s subjects felt they had done anything wrong, let alone felt remorse for their actions.
  • Pat also commented on the related costs, which seemed counter-intuitive to me, but made sense when broken down. California reports that it costs an additional $90,000 per year to keep one death row inmate verses a life without parole inmate. Other states show similar expenses which include the pre-trial costs, jury costs, court costs, appeals, investigation, and incarceration. (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty)
  • Pat has witnessed two executions, and has spoken with many killers and victims’ family members before and after executions. She reported that most of the killers looked forward to their executions as a form of freedom and that the time incarcerated was the real punishment. Additionally, family members admitted that there was no sense of justice or closure after the executions.

So, now I’m wondering, if the death penalty doesn’t serve as a deterrent, doesn’t provide the families with justice, doesn’t have a punitive effect, and costs dramatically more than a life sentence, what is the advantage of capital punishment? I intend to do some more research and reflection on this topic. I remember Zig Ziglar once wrote that no one changes their mind; however, with new information people are able to make new and improved decisions. I thought I settled this in my mind twenty-plus years ago, but the statistics I have found were released in the last decade. Perhaps it’s time to make a new and improved decision.

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