The Death Penalty: Foolproof or foolish?
By James Alan Fox,
SEPTEMBER has surely seemed like death penalty month here in
Anyone who has tuned into ''CSI: Crime Scene Investigation'' understands the unparalleled probative value of the genetic profiles that can be derived from blood, semen, saliva, or even hairs recovered at a crime scene. While the scientific theory underlying DNA is unimpeachable and the methods of extracting genetic material from limited trace evidence is advancing every year, the testing process is still performed by human beings who are not exactly infallible.
In the few years that DNA has been used as a forensic tool,
the integrity of the testing and record-keeping processes has been threatened
because of overburdened labs and poorly trained technicians. Not seen in episodes
of ''CSI'' are the kinds of mistakes occurring in real practice: mislabeling of
DNA samples discovered in
Besides the unrealistic idea that the risk of false conviction can be totally eliminated, the governor holds dearly to the myth of deterrence. If Romney is so impressed with science, then why is he dismissive of scientific research showing that the death penalty does not deter murders? While many would-be assailants might be dissuaded from committing murder by the prospect of being executed, they are equally repelled by the prospect of incarceration for life, which is hardly a slap on the wrist.
Speed and certainty of punishment deter, not its severity. It is ironic, therefore, that the rare and exceptional application of capital punishment envisioned by the governor would in effect help to negate any possible deterrent impact. Because this narrow statute would apply only to a very small percentage of the murders committed each year in the state, offenders would ignore the remote chance of execution, if they even contemplated getting caught at all.
While life imprisonment may be virtually as strong a deterrent as the death penalty, many citizens are concerned about their tax dollars being used wastefully to house and feed convicted murderers for the rest of their lives. Yet, the potential savings associated with removing a prisoner from a cell and executing him has been grossly exaggerated. Given the fixed overhead costs of incarceration, including utilities, salaries, and maintenance, relatively little -- pennies per capita taxpayer -- is saved by staging an execution.
On the other side of the fiscal ledger, the cost of capital trials runs into the millions. In view of the life-and-death issue at stake, previous bills unsuccessfully introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature would have guaranteed those prosecuted for capital murder the very best defense that the taxpayers' money could buy -- a top-notch team of attorneys with wide latitude in hiring experts and consultants.
Other states have already learned the expensive way that capital murder trials tend to be many times more costly than noncapital murder trials because of the length and complexity of these prosecutions. The process could be streamlined, of course, but at a very different cost -- increasing the possibility of convicting and executing an innocent person.
In the final analysis,
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal