Should a death sentence be for life?

Author: Barrett Rainey

The State of Idaho executed someone this week. Whether you support or oppose the death penalty, I’m familiar with the crime this guy committed and – in my opinion – it made him a poster child for backers of the needle. Maybe.

When I was a young, I wasted a lot of time debating state-sponsored executions – in one watering hole or another – with other similarly young colleagues. In your 20’s, with a raised alcohol content for artificial intelligence, it’s easy to be “for” or “against” nearly any subject – depending on the ebb and flow of the meaningless conversation. To this day, I can still argue pro-con about legal executions but – with a few more rings around my trunk – most of the debate is with a sober mind. I’m still conflicted.

I was a crime beat reporter for many years. Hanging around the “cop shop” was part of the job. Drinking coffee with officers in the break room, making regular visits to the jail and an occasional flower or two for the gals in the office were part of “fitting in” if you wanted to get some good stories.

I learned a lot about the life of a cop. And that came from a practice almost no reporters do today: riding “shotgun” in a patrol car – mostly at night. That you did on your own time and for your own reasons. For several years, I did a lot of it. And I saw a lot of bad things.

Fatal vehicle wrecks – and the bloody aftermath often created – were shocking. At first. Then not so much. It surprised me how quickly the sight of a separated head sitting in the middle of a dark street was not personally jarring. There were mangled bodies in mangled cars, death in a house fire, industrial accidents and an occasional plane crash. You stayed out of the way and did your work. You didn’t forget the sight – or the smell – but death by accident became just part of the job. You got used to it.

Homicides were different. Death by accident was just that – an accident. Someone drank too much or made a bad driving decision or had mechanical failure or was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accidents.

But murder – the taking of someone’s life by another – no matter the reason, was something I didn’t get used to. Especially violent, bloody, ritualistic or dismembered. The kind the guy in Idaho died for. The dead were often innocent. Had made no bad decision. Had not been an accident victim. They died – often violently and painfully – at the hands of another person. Sometimes killed by someone they didn’t even know. All these 40-50 years later, the memories are still too vivid.

So, yes, I can argue that the guy in Idaho deserved to die for the violent, dismembering, bloody murder of an innocent girl asleep in her bedroom at home. The evidence was overwhelming. Nobody involved with the case is wrestling with doubt about whether the right person was killed on that gurney by a state executioner. Maybe.

What I have difficulty accepting is it was more than 30 years from the crime by a kid in his 20’s to the state killing of a middle-aged guy in his 50’s. I know our legal system is filled with safeguards, checks, double checks and multiple chances for appeal or even new trials. Intellectually, that’s desirable and acceptable. Especially now that we’re seeing DNA evidence clearing people on death row. I fully understand. All well and good. My objection is the time from crime to punishment. One Idaho inmate has been on death row for nearly 50 years!

Was the person executed last week the same person who committed the crime? Think back in your own life. Back 30-35 years or so. Are you the same person you were then? Did you do something you weren’t proud of back then but were never held accountable? Would you risk what you have in your life now – and the person you are now – to publically take your punishment 30-40 years later? Are you still the same person? Really?

A lot of years following the cops around convinced me there are some really bad people who will never change, will commit horrible crimes and should be separated from society until they die. They’re not the ones who bother me at this late date. My concern is whether the person who may become an entirely new individual while the wheels of justice grind slowly is the right person we should kill.

I have no legal background. Friends and other readers that do are probably saying right now “Well, you’ve certainly proven that!” But my questions remain. Is it right to kill a person 20-30-40 years after the crime? Is society exacting the extreme penalty from the same person who committed the crime? After a period of 10 years or so of legal work on the case, should society accept the concept of the death sentence being automatically commuted to life without parole instead?

The subject of capital punishment is much like the subject of abortion. If neither has touched your life, it’s much easier to have an opinion. But if it’s your son on the gurney – or your daughter in the doctor’s exam room – the exercise in both cases stops being philosophical and becomes a most intimate, personal matter. Sort of like how Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich differ from the common, hardline Republican orthodoxy on gays. Having a daughter or a sister who’s a lesbian can produce loving acceptance even though otherwise faced with political pragmatism.

And that’s the root of my angst about death penalties carried out several decades after the crime no matter how heinous the crime may have been. With all our technology of DNA and other scientific options – with legal and law enforcement information data stored and readily available – can’t the appeals process in capital crimes cases be shortened to something more reasonable that 30-50 years?

Seems to me – if only for the sake of innocent family and friends seeking closure from the tragedy of murder or state-sponsored killing of a loved one – legal and other societal minds could devise a system assuring the rights of all concerned that would shorten the crime-to-punishment interval. Yes, the rights of the convicted, too. Could we do it in 8-10 years?

Many states have already eliminated the death penalty. The subject is on the table in a lot of others. While much of the debate is about the level of punishment in crimes of murder and the humanity of that punishment, maybe more of it should be about whether we – as a society – are fulfilling our purpose of exacting the right punishment for the right reasons but maybe on the wrong person.

When 30 or 40 or 50 years have passed, I have my doubts we are executing the same person who committed the crime. Serious doubts.

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