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Keeping its lead in the nation's death penalty derby, Texas yesterday conducted its twelfth execution this year, putting a mentally impaired Frank Garcia to death for killing Hector Garcia, a police officer, ten years ago.

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In line with that execution, this week's poll gathered your thoughts on the effectiveness and morality of the death penalty in America.

To assemble the first three questions of our poll, we relied on a fact-filled handbook, "A Taxpayer Guide to the California Death Penalty," written by Paul W. Comiskey and sponsored by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Death Penalty Costs

Death penalty cases cost 10 times as much life without parole sentences, and the largest group of our 99 respondents (41%) got that right, with the next largest group (33%) pegging the difference at 20 times. Only a few thought the costs were roughly the same (6%), twice as much (7%), or three times as much (12%).

According to Comiskey, death penalty cases cost so much in part because the law requires much greater effort be put into a death penalty defendant's defense. "The penalty phase adds enormously to the complexity and cost of a death penalty phase. The defendant will almost always have a mitigation specialist as part of the defense team," in addition to two lawyers, with typical cases lasting three to five years.

Required appeals processes further add to the costs: "A reporter for the Sacramento Bee estimated that each execution costs three hundred and fifty million dollars but the true cost is probably much higher."

Death Penalty Appeals

In California, death penalty appeals typically last 30 years. Here, most respondents estimated the length at 20 years (58%), with 18% estimatimg 30 years, 7% estimating 40 years, 15% estimating 10 years, and just 2% estimating five years.

Beside the costs of the ongoing appeals process, the prolonged wait does tremendous damage to the inmates, their families, and the families of their victims, according to Comiskey.

"Most of the people we put on death row are not going to be executed," Comiskey writes. "The 'death row phenomenon' refers to the large percentage of people on death row who become mentally ill after many years…the fact that there have been sixteen suicides and only thirteen executions gives us some indication of the death row phenomenon."

The victims' families are promised an execution in a death penalty case and promised that it will bring them some closure, which it rarely does. But then to have them wait for decades for these promises to be delivered:

"As along as the murdered is alive and breathing, the crime scene is replayed constantly before the eyes of the loves ones of the victim. Let these victims see the case closed and put to rest the murder scene."

The families of the person who is executed fare no better:

"The family members of the person executed will suffer grief, hostility, isolation, and a feeling of being branded by society," Comiskey writes. "Their sufferings start with the arrest of their loved one and continue through a trial, years of incarceration and appeals and finally an execution."

What Death Penalty Trials Do

Of the choices we offered, the only one Comiskey's report says is true is that death penalty trials are more likely to convict innocent people, which the majority (73%) of our respondents got right.

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Comiskey cites Craig Haney's Death By Design, which indicates that the added publicity and sensationalism around a death penalty case often biases the jury, even though the jurors must offer assurance that they can put what they know about a case aside.

Also, prosecutors will allow only jurors who believe in the death penalty to sit on such cases, which research shows means that they will be much more likely to vote for guilt and then for the death penalty.

Not true were the options that death penalty trials are

  • Less prone to error (0% of you indicated that)
  • Tend to provide comfier to victim families (20%)
  • Tend to make people feel safer (10%)
  • Tend to deter crime (2%)
  • Provide resolution for the executed's family (3%)
  • Provide closure for the victim's finally (12%)

The are all myths, according to Comiskey's work.

Should California Have an Initiative Banning the Death Penatly?

The great majority of our respondents favor an initiate. These comments capture the general flavor:

"We must end the death penalty in California and in the rest of the U.S. It is barbaric, applied in a discriminatory manner, prone to error (fatal error) and, for those who are truly guilty of heinous crimes, it's the easy way out - a long, miserable life in prison is a much better punishment."

"Save money, save the innocent, join the rest of the educated world, murder is not acceptable especially when promulgated by a court"

A few hold the opposite view:

"Put it on the ballot and you will see overwhelming support for the death penalty, and the crybabies won't be able to lie about the level of public support any more."

Some then took a more pragmatic view"

"It might bring out extremists to vote & that can hurt the objectives of other initiatives at the same election."

dick price

Our own view took that last thought into consideration, but then argues for having the initiative:

"The Right will try to use it to inflame their base, probably with some success. The Left will have less luck inflaming their base around this issue. But it's the right thing to do and it's time we start running our government and our politics on that basis and no other."

Dick Price, Editor