The debate raised by the Michael Ross case is not about whether or not Ross should die. It is about whether or not the death penalty is sound public policy. Ross is a despicable human being who committed crimes of unspeakable brutality. Yet, last night his execution was stayed for the fourth time. Here we have the most wicked, vile serial killer in generations, and yet Connecticut simply cannot execute him. This costly debacle is only the latest example of why the death penalty must be abolished.
Does Ross deserve to die? Almost certainly. But who among us has the authority to declare an end to another’s life? One only has to take a look at the world around him to find suggestions. Religious leaders of all denominations have called state executions morally unjustifiable. The U.N. General Assembly called for its members to abolish the death penalty. In fact, the United States is one of just two industrialized nations in the world (Japan being the other) that practice capital punishment.
But don’t just take their word for it. Even if you are not morally opposed to capital punishment, it’s still poor public policy. If capital punishment is supposed to deter violent crime, it’s not working. The South has the highest execution rate and the highest homicide rate, which only continues to rise. The Northeast has not seen an execution in decades, yet it maintains the lowest homicide rate.
“Yeah, but I’d rather have a murderer executed instead of eating up my tax dollars on death row.” This is a common argument that intends to focus on the bottom line. However, it actually costs 38 percent more to prosecute a capital felony case, when compared to life imprisonment. This is due to the ceaseless appeals process, as evidenced in the Ross case. That’s money that could be better spent on something that would actually prevent violent crime.
To be fair, you can still receive a death sentence for espionage, treason or drug trafficking. Statistics don’t exactly exist on those fields, but it’s doubtful a spy is going to be deterred. Additionally, capital punishment is so antiquated that you can still be executed by hanging (Delaware, Washington), firing squad (Utah, Idaho), electrocution (Nebraska), or gas chamber (five states).
There exist even more appalling flaws. There are vast discrepancies in the way the death penalty is applied. Compare Connecticut’s seven men on death row — no one has been executed in this state since 1960 — with Texas’ 337 executions since 1982. Texas does not have life imprisonment without parole as an option. Capital punishment has also been shown to be racially biased, with a death sentence more likely to be given if the victim is white. Of the seven men on death row in Connecticut, three are Caucasian, three are African-American and one is Hispanic. In these cases, 10 of the victims were Caucasian, one was African-American and one was Hispanic.
Ross is a casualty of another, more egregious flaw. Like 95 percent of death row inmates, he could not afford a private lawyer, instead taking on a public defender. Public defendants are honorable professionals, but usually they’re at the bottom of the pecking order. It wasn’t until Ross declared he wanted to end his appeals that his current lawyer chose to help him be executed, pro bono.
Yet, that lawyer has suddenly changed his mind — five days after the execution was originally scheduled — and decided Ross might be mentally incompetent. This delineates the biggest problem with the ultimate punishment. It’s irreversible. If you were found to be innocent, as in fact convicts sometimes are, being absolved from the crimes with which you were charged doesn’t mean that much when you’re six feet under.
Is capital punishment actually state-sponsored murder? Or, in Ross’ case, is it state-sponsored suicide? It’s unsettling to think that Connecticut is killing a man in our name, but that’s what its doing. And it’s happening through a highly flawed system that shows little hope of self-correction. There is only one course of action that can be taken. The death penalty must be abolished, with life imprisonment without possibility of parole instituted in its stead. Only then will legitimacy be established in the sentencing of capital felons. We must execute justice, not people.
Chris Rhie is a sophomore in Pierson College.