Capital Punishment1




CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
It is usually called, simply, the “chair” and at one time, was in constant use at New York’s legendary Sing Sing Prison. But, no executions have occurred in New York since 1963, a time when support for capital punishment was eroding across the country. The state’s capital punishment statute was declared unconstitutional in 1977. In this year, and in each of the following 17 years, Democratic governors vetoed legislation to restore the death penalty.
Yet, in 1994, with the coming of republican Governor George Pataki, an agreement was quickly reached with legislative leaders on a law to revive the death penalty for several categories of murder which included about ten types of homicides. The signing of the law also replaced electrocution with lethal injection. New York’s stance on capital punishment reflects an ongoing, nationwide trend. More than thirty other states have reinstated the death penalty since the early 1970’s, with many others still considering.
Opinion surveys show strong support for the death penalty in all regions of the country and among virtually all population groups. A Gallup Poll taken in 1994 reported that eighty percent of the population favored the death sentence for persons convicted of murder. About forty percent advocating the death penalty for homicide said that they wanted revenge, “an eye for an eye.” Roughly thirteen percent of the advocates cited its alleged deterrent effect. Yet, law enforcement officials throughout the country do not consider the death penalty as an effective deterrent. In a national poll in 1995 of 386 police chiefs and sheriffs, the death penalty was ranked as the least cost-effective way of reducing violent crime.
For convicted murderers who have been sitting on death row for years, Congress and the Supreme Court could turn the death penalty into a reality. A bill approved by the house in early February of 1995 would curb the ability of inmates to file habeas corpus petitions, in which they seek federal review of their convictions in state courts on grounds that their constitutional rights have been violated. As the courts, lawmakers, and the public continue the capital punishment debate, one of the key questions being asked is if habeas corpus reform will speed the pace of executions.
Supporters of the House-passed bill limiting habeas corpus appeals by prisoners say the measure would save taxpayers money. Paul Kamenar, executive legal director of the Washington Legal Foundation, a pro-death-penalty group says the habeas corpus bill “will go a long way toward eliminating inordinate delays in (carrying out) the death penalty.”
On the other hand, Leigh Dingerson, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, questions whether limiting habeas corpus appeals will have much impact. “It’s hard to tell what the effect will be because every case going through the appeals process is different. Its not as if there are 2800 uniform cases that can all be expedited the minute some legal barriers are lifted.” She continues, “The pace of executions may increase slightly, but we’re not going to see floodgates opening.”
The question of whether innocent people actually are convicted and executed is endlessly debated. Discussion of the issue can revolve around a study published in 1987 by Hugo Adam Bedau and Michael L. Radelet. These two named 350 persons which they said had probably been wrongly convicted of potentially capital crimes in the U.S. between 1900 and 1987. Most were either pardoned or had their convictions overturned because of new evidence. But, the authors say that twenty-three people were executed in error. Once these guys are executed, there’s really not much that can be done about it.
Many people often wonder if the death penalty deters people from committing capital crimes. If you were to round of the some 3,000 people who are under death sentence in this country and executed them all today on television, would the streets be any safer tomorrow? Executions satisfy the public’s demand that murderers suffer punishment proportionate to their offense. A 1985 study shows that the death penalty deters more potential homicides than earlier studies suggested. Yet, some experts argue that the death penalty actually encourages homicide in some circumstances. It is said that the threat of capital punishment raises the stakes of getting caught. Author Michael Kronenwetter wrote, “Anyone already subject to the death