Over the last week, we’ve been treated to some very purple prose in the Conway Daily Sun, on the topic of the death penalty. After wading through hyperbole and run on sentences, the bottom line is this: Joe Kenney, State Senator from District 3, is running for governor. No one knows who he is. Filing a bill to expand the death penalty gives him headlines, and name recognition. Filing a bill to expand the death penalty - with NO plan for how to pay for it, in order to achieve name recognition can be called political grandstanding at best. At worst, one might say he is using the families of victims for his own gain. Either way, it ain’t pretty.
NH has a death penalty statute. The last time we executed a citizen was in 1939. Polling data in recent years shows that most NH residents are opposed to the death penalty. In 2000, both the NH House and Senate passed a bill abolishing the death penalty, but Governor Shaheen vetoed it. It is a deeply emotional issue. The families of victims are divided, with some wanting that “eye for an eye” solution, and some wanting justice - justice and an end to the killing. Murdering a murderer doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t bring back the dead, and it doesn’t stop anyone else from killing. It satisfies a very primitive need - the need for vengeance.
Senator Kenney wants to expend the NH death penalty to include murders with multiple victims. He was quoted in this paper as saying, “There is no way that someone should walk into a store in this state and kill three people and get away with it.” Michael Woodbury was sentenced to life in prison without parole. One would be hard pressed to call that “getting away with it.” One could even make the case that life without parole is the worst punishment possible. Waking up each day to face the mind numbing boredom, the daily violence - knowing that you are behind the bars and walls forever, for years and years and years - now that’s cruel. Executing him puts an end to that.
Expanding the death penalty would mean more potential capital cases. Senator Kenney left out the part about how NH will pay for these cases. Right now, the state is looking at a budget deficit that could be $50 million by June, and as much as $150 million by 2009. Where will the money come from to expand and update NH’s death row? Where will the money come from to pay for the prosecution of death penalty cases, and pay for the endless rounds of appeals?
How much will the death penalty cost us? New York reinstated the death penalty in 1995. As of 2003, NY officials estimated that it would cost approximately $23 million for each death row inmate. New Jersey has spent a quarter of a billion dollars in the last 23 years on a capital punishment system that has executed no one, a 2005 report showed. Since 1982 there have been 197 capital trials in New Jersey, that resulted in 60 death sentences. Fifty of those sentences were reversed. There are currently 10 men on death row, at a cost of $11 million a year. A report done by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury found that death penalty trials cost an average of 48% more than trials seeking life imprisonment. The state of Kansas found that capital cases are 70% more expensive than trials seeking life in prison. A 2001 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that capital cases are a burden to county budgets, and most counties manage these costs by decreasing funding for highways and police, and increasing taxes. A study by Indiana’s Criminal Law Study Commission found that death penalty cases cost 38% more than life without parole cases. North Carolina spends $2.16 million more per execution than a life imprisonment case. The Palm Beach Post found that Florida would save $51 million a year by sentencing all first degree murderers to life in prison without parole. California spends $90 million a year on capital cases. According to a 2005 LA Times story, the death penalty system costs California taxpayers more than $114 million a year.
The figure of $23-24 million per capital case came up in several states. The argument is often made that it will cost more to imprison a murderer for life without parole, but that isn’t true. The cost of housing an inmate in NH was $31,140 in 2006. (from the Dept. of Corrections website.) Do the math. Keeping a murderer in orange jumpsuits for 50 years will not cost $23 million dollars.
Where will this money come from in NH? Surely even our state isn’t gauche enough to try to fund executions by lotteries, gaming, or gambling, as appealing at the idea of “bowling for hangings” may be. That leaves one option, folks - the property tax. I hope you’ll all tell ole Granstanding Joe how you feel about a dramatic increase in your property taxes to fund executions. Then be sure to tell him how you feel about him preying on the emotions of victim’s families in order to create statewide name recognition for his gubernatorial campaign. Helpful adjectives may include: despicable, loathsome, and abhorrent.
“If we let murderers turn us to murder, we give them too much power. They succeed in bringing us to their way of thinking and acting, and we become what we say we abhor.” Renny Cushing, Executive Director of Murder Victim’s Families for Human Rights, and former NH state legislator. His father was murdered in 1988.
The Death Penalty Information Center is an excellent resource. I used it for some of my research. http://deathpenaltyinfo.org