The Cautionary Instruction: The death penalty as political device

Friday, 22 March 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20120224 electricchairB photocom113123128 150The death penalty continues to have strong support. A January Gallup Poll found that 63 percent of Americans support capital punishment.

The death penalty remains popular among politicians as well. The death penalty can be manipulated to make one politician look tough and another look compassionate. This is evident by a series of coast to coast news stories about the death penalty all from a single day last week -- March 13, 2013.

Law enforcement leaders from across Delaware recently declared their firm opposition to a Senate bill that would abolish capital punishment and commute the sentences of death row inmates to life in prison.

The Police Chiefs’ Council argued Delaware’s death penalty has not been applied in a racially discriminatory fashion and that no death row conviction has ever been overturned in the state -- though capital sentences have been downgraded to life in prison upon appeal.

Supporters of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s bill to repeal the death penalty turned back 18 proposed amendments in the House of Delegates, including attempts to keep capital punishment on the books for cop killers, child abductors and terrorists.

The two-hour debate set the stage for a successful vote in the House last Friday. O’Malley is set to sign the bill making Maryland the 18th state to abolish the death penalty.

“You can come up with a never-ending parade of horrible crimes ... but the fact remains that the death penalty is ineffective,” O’Malley said.

"Victims' families have suffered for far too long and it's time to stop the legal wrangling and bring them peace and closure, finally, in their cases," said North Carolina State Sen. Thom Goolsby. "We owe it to these families of murder victims across North Carolina to impose the punishment that our laws require."

Goolsby's bill requires the state's attorney general to report to legislators each year on the status of all death penalty appeals in the state and establish a timeline for execution when those appeals are exhausted. It also includes doing away with the state's Racial Justice Act.

Florida is the only state that allows juries to recommend death sentences by a simple majority vote. In nearly every other state, the jury vote must be unanimous. Only one in five death sentences gets a unanimous verdict in Florida.

Legislation that would require unanimous death-sentence recommendations has had little discussion in the legislature until recently. A bill sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman would change that, requiring unanimous sentencing recommendations in capital cases.

In the state of Washington a bill was introduced this year to replace the death penalty with life in prison. State Rep. Maureen Walsh said she supports the measure because execution lets convicted murderers off too easy.

"I'd rather they sit in jail the rest of their lives, think about what they've done, live in that hell for the rest of their lives," she said. "It's just way too easy to kill them and be done with it."

(Image: jamesbenet/Getty Images)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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