By Rich Lewis, November 8, 2007
Last updated: Thursday, November 8, 2007 9:18 AM EST
I had always hoped that the people of the United States would finally reject the death penalty as a matter of justice, decency or moral principle.
But in the end, it may just come down to money.
Well, whatever it takes.
As the New York Times reported this week, a judge in Atlanta has delayed a high-profile death-penalty case because Georgia’s public defender system doesn’t have enough money to pay the accused’s lawyers.
Judge Hilton M. Fuller, Jr. has been threatened with impeachment, attacked in the press, sued by the district attorney and denounced by his fellow judges as an “embarrassment” and a “fool.”
But the cost of defending accused murderer Brian Nichols has already reached $1.2 million and will go much higher because of the tough standards for legal representation that higher courts require in death penalty cases.
Fuller has decided it is “pointless to proceed,” the Times writes, until the state comes up with the money.
The kicker is that Nichols has offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without parole — which would eliminate the need for a trial altogether and save Georgia millions.
But the DA wants his costly pound of flesh and won’t accept the deal.
As the Times observes, the Nichols case “revolves around an issue more and more states are being forced to confront — the rising cost of an adequate defense in death-penalty cases.”
In fact, though the U.S. Supreme Court just a week ago imposed a virtual moratorium on the death penalty, “the cost issue will have far broader implications for the future of the death penalty,” the Times writes.
Good. The more forces arrayed against this ghastly practice, the better.
It has been noted many times that the United States is on a shrinking list of countries that still impose the death penalty. Our “colleagues” among the very few countries that use it often include China, Iran, Uganda, North Korea, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The death penalty is outlawed in all of Western Europe.
Over the years, I have written numerous columns discussing the evils of the death penalty — its essential barbarism, its selective (racist) application, the horrendous and growing list of innocent people who were condemned to die.
And no one can deny that the tide against the death penalty is high and rising.
The Supreme Court has halted executions in several states while it considers whether “lethal injection” is “cruel and unusual punishment.” Until the court makes a decision, likely next summer, states are suspending executions.
On Oct. 29, the American Bar Association renewed its call for a nationwide moratorium on executions based on a study of eight states, including Pennsylvania, because “serious problems were found in every state death penalty system.”
In the last year, major newspapers in Illinois and Texas have reversed long-standing positions and openly advocated abolition of the death penalty.
The cumulative result, as the AP’s Mark Sherman noted in an Oct. 31 article, is that no death sentences were carried out in October, “the first time in nearly three years (that) a month passed with no executions in the United States.”
Still, the Supreme Court is likely only to prettify lethal-injection methods so that they scrape by the cruel-and-unusual standard. The ABA can only plead for sanity, not require it. Newspaper editorials might or might not sway public opinion.
The cost issue, however, is biting deeply in the one place in which Americans have always been sensitive: the pocketbook.
The costs go well beyond lawyer fees. The Times gives the example of New Jersey, an example also highlighted by the Death Penalty Information Center, which noted that a New Jersey Policy Perspectives report concluded that “the state’s death penalty has cost taxpayers $253 million since 1983, a figure that is over and above the costs that would have been incurred had the state utilized a sentence of life without parole instead of death. The study examined the costs of death penalty cases to prosecutor offices, public defender offices, courts, and correctional facilities.”
The report’s authors said that the cost estimate is “very conservative,” because other significant costs uniquely associated with the death penalty were not available.
That’s a quarter of a billion dollars spent by New Jersey taxpayers. And on what? As the Times writes, “The state has not executed a single inmate in that time.”
No surprise, then, that “a bill to abolish the death penalty is given a fair chance of passing.”
Yes, we should renounce the death penalty because it is wrong. We should renounce it because we are better than that.
But if we renounce it because of something as base and petty as the cost, at least state-sanctioned murder will be gone.
“I’m beginning to think I am a fool for taking this case,” Judge Fuller told the Times reporter as he re-read the e-mail message in which a fellow judge had called him just that.
If so, then he is what Christians call a “holy fool” — one who ultimately holds out the truth in the disguise of folly.