Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Forgotten Reason for the Death Penalty

Two of the most important reasons for having a death penalty are punishment and use as a bargaining chip (most disputes over deterrence and selective use of perceived international trends ignore these issues).

Today's news reminds us of the value of that "bargaining chip":

BATH, Pa. (AP) - Prosecutors are considering whether to make Kathy MacClellan one of the oldest U.S. defendants in modern times to stand trial on a capital murder charge.


MacClellan allegedly attacked Marguerite "Tuddy" Eyer with the claw end of a hammer Feb. 7. The victim, who was found in the kitchen of her home a few blocks away from the MacClellan house, told police that "Kathy Mc ... did it with a hammer," according to court documents. She died 13 minutes after being rushed to the emergency room; the coroner said she had been struck in the head 37 times.

Police said they found Eyer's wallet and checkbook in MacClellan's house, and MacClellan's face, hair and orange stirrup pants were covered in Eyer's blood.


Even if McClellan were convicted and sentenced to lethal injection, her age and Pennsylvania's long appeals process make it unlikely that she would be executed. University of Pennsylvania law professor David Rudovsky, a defense attorney, suggested prosecutors might be using the prospect of a death sentence as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations.

This raises another question - death penalty opponents frequently cite high costs as a problem with the death penalty, but couldn't the mere existence of the death penalty create significant savings by encouraging plea bargains in capital cases? In 2000, Spokane's friendly local serial killer, Robert L. Yates, Jr., plead guilty to 13 murders and was sentenced to 408 1/2 years in prison. The plea agreement spared Yates the death penalty, ensured his cooperation with prosecutors, and spared Spokane the cost of a lengthy trial.

Finally, a story from 2002 reminds us of how important this bargaining chip can be for national security:

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- The FBI agent who sold his country's secrets to Moscow for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds will be sentenced Friday to life in prison with no chance of parole.

That sentence is part of the plea bargain Robert Hanssen struck last summer to avoid the death penalty and to allow his wife, Bonnie, to receive part of his government pension.

In exchange, the government was to learn when and how Hanssen turned over to Moscow the identities of dozens of Russians spying for the United States, highly classified eavesdropping technology and even nuclear war plans.

Cases like these show us how useful the death penalty can be - particularly when it is not imposed.

Update, Apr. 9: Death Penalty threat saves the expense of a trial for serial bomber Eric Rudolph.


Michelle said...

The reason I don't agree with the death penalty is the fact that it is merely for revenge. How can that the make to the world better? We teach our children, "An eye for an eye makes a man blind." Yet, we secretly laugh at the thought. I do believe people should be punished, but also should be given treatment. A normal, sane person does not kill. People would rather kill the person, it is cheaper after all! Why should have to pay for some to receive treatment, when you can get instant revenge by watching them killed?
The death penalty has been around forever though, and Jesus himself was apart of it. Things may never change.

Nick said...

Nothing in that comment contradicts the purpose of the post, namely that besides punishment (one of the undisputed major goals of any penalty), deterrence, etc., the death penalty has significant utility as a threat.

The fun little quote I usually hear is closer to "an eye for an eye makes the world blind" - but to continue that metaphor to its logical conclusion, to do otherwise would create a world where the innocent will be blind and only the evil will see.

Another recent example of the utility of the death penalty is Atlanta's Brian Nichols. Before his bloody rampage on March 11th, Nichols was already facing the possibility of life in prison. He'd be happy to just get life in prison now.

Ryan said...

The sad thing about capital punishment is that the appeals process can sometimes take decades and the convict ends up rotting away in prison. I'd rather see an appeals process that was much shorter, and maybe the death penalty would be an even bigger deterrent. But I wouldn't want to see anything out of France during the revolution, with the guillotines and such.