Do not restart the machine of death in Minnesota

State Sen. Mady Reiter, R-Shoreview, will soon introduce a bill supported by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to put Minnesota back in the execution business. The proposal would put the idea to a referendum, ostensibly because it would fail in the Legislature. Minnesota must hold firm to its tradition of enlightened governance and reject this attempt to turn the clock back almost 100 years.

Minnesota’s death penalty was abolished in 1911, the last execution occurring in 1906 when a hanging went wrong and a man was hanged for approximately 15 minutes before he died. The arguments from Reiter and company are the ones consistently put forth from execution advocates – in short, “an eye for an eye.” Pawlenty’s restatement of this rationale is “the crime must fit the punishment.”

While the idea that some crimes are heinous enough to merit death has a simplistic logic, it is state-sanctioned vengeance. In the spirit of another biblical maxim, “judge not, lest ye be judged,” society should not indulge in barbaric instincts, but should instead look to the better sides of human nature in which humility, mercy and forgiveness (though not forgetfulness) reside.

Death penalty advocates also put forth two peripheral arguments: deterrence and cost savings. The first of these, that the death penalty deters crime, not only fails to persuade but fails to exist. Studies consistently question if the death penalty deters crime.

For example, the FBI recently found the murder rate in the South, which accounts for 82 percent of executions since 1976, went up 2.1 percent while falling in the North by almost 5 percent. Another study tested the deterrence theory in Texas and found execution rates do not affect murder rates. Deterrence, it seems, is only a hypothesis.

Taxpayer savings is another myth. In Texas each execution costs the state $2.3 million, three times the cost of life imprisonment. In Florida each execution bill totals $3.2 million. In Indiana a study found execution is 38 percent more expensive than life in prison. Execution advocates complain this is because of the cost of criminals’ rights and the appeals process.

The appeals process consumes vast resources. The alternative, assuming the continuance of the death penalty, is executing more innocent people.

This leads to the second set of concerns. If the death penalty was a good idea, can we administer it fairly and execute only those guilty of crimes meriting such a final solution?

Fairness includes consistent application – death should result from the crime committed and not from other circumstances. For example, the location of a trial greatly affects execution rates. This begs the question: Is someone guiltier if he or she commits a crime in Texas or Alabama?

Also, many defendants cannot afford their own attorneys. Appointed representation is inconsistent and often incompetent, especially in states that lack public defender offices.

The best indicator of whether someone convicted of a capital crime will die for that crime is race. Nationwide, 82 percent of those put to death are convicted of murdering a white person. In cases where the execution resulted from an “interracial crime” – where the convict’s race differed from the victim’s – 94 percent of those executed were blacks who murdered whites.

This all shows a consistent application, but for the wrong reasons – location, the defendant’s bank account size and the victim’s race.

There is still the risk of error when death is the punishment. Authorities have different figures on how often we execute an innocent man, but all concede it happens.

Worldwide, more countries have abolished the death penalty than have retained it, while the United States executes more people yearly. We are the only country with a functioning government that executes juveniles.

Though we must forever forbid some convicts from harming society again, life in prison can accomplish this when necessary. The death penalty is not only morally problematic at best, but after decades of trying to weed out the problems and injustices, it is clear we failed. As Harry Blackman, a former Supreme Court justice whose career was largely based in Minnesota, put it: “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Neither should we.