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DEATH PENALTY FEVER RISES FROM PARANOIA, NOT FACTS OF CRIME.

Byline: EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON

THE furor over the attempted execution of convicted murderer-rapist Tommy Thompson has subsided - for the moment. Yet, it again made me wonder why so many Californians swear that the death penalty is a panacea for murder and mayhem.

I'm convinced that their fervor for it boils down to essentially two reasons. One is publicly stated: fear of crime. For much of this fear I blame the media and politicians. From the late 1980s on, the media has pumped the public with mega-doses of gory crime and violence stories, and politicians have pounded away on crime as a sure-fire way to get votes.

The result is that a scared-stiff public has demanded the speedier dispatch of violent criminals.

The other reason for the death penalty mania is privately whispered: race and class. More than 45 percent of those currently sitting on the nation's Death Rows are minorities.

They are almost always the poorest of the poor, and the least likely to have the resources to get crack legal representation. Needless to say, the death penalty is almost never given to Mafia hit men, wealthy celebrities, businessmen or athletes. And in more than a few cases, the mentally incompetent, juvenile delinquents or the innocent (there were 48 of them, according to a report by the House Subcommittee during the past two decades), have been executed.

The American Bar Association has recognized the towering flaws in the administration of the death penalty. In February 1997, after quickly assuring the public (and many of its members), that they weren't voting on the morality, ethics or legality of the death penalty, only its ``unfairness,'' the ABA called for a moratorium on the death penalty. This briefly caught the attention of the press but the public predictably shrugged it off.

Since the moral and legal arguments against the death penalty don't work, the only thing left is to hammer on the two cherished beliefs of the public: a) the death penalty is a deterrent; and b) it's cost-effective.

Both are myths.

Not a deterrent

The death penalty doesn't deter crime. In polls in 1995, the overwhelming majority of law enforcement and municipal officials of major cities doubted that the death penalty did what it was supposed to do.

They could see that the murder rates in their cities were still high. They knew that most people are murdered not by a stranger on the street but by a friend, acquaintance or a relative. They recognized that despite two decades of the state's putting people to death, there was not a shred of evidence that those who kill worried that one day they might have a date with the hangman.

If that isn't enough to make officials doubt the worth of the death penalty, there are the numbers. Eighteen of the 20 states with the highest murder rates impose the death penalty and that includes California. Seventeen of 20 big cities with the highest murder rates are in death penalty states and that certainly includes Los Angeles. Michigan and Indiana are next door to each other. One has the death penalty (Indiana), the other doesn't (Michigan), and two decades later their murder rates are no different.

The argument that crimes committed by minorities are more heinous and more traumatic won't fly either. In four of the five non-death-penalty states, the nonwhite population is higher percentage-wise than the national average and the murder rate in each of those states is lower. The irony of all this is that at a time when the death penalty is monstrously popular, and public fear of violent crime is highest, murder rates are at a 20-year low.

Americans were more likely to be murdered during the 1930s Great Depression than today. The plunge in violence happened before the executioners swung into high gear in the late 1980s.

This points to another cruel irony about the death penalty. Most killers, including some of the worst, don't get it.

There are 20,000-plus homicides in America yearly. Only one of 600 murderers will receive the death penalty. Who gets it depends on the victim, race, money, location where the murder was committed, the quality of legal representation and luck.

Not cost-effective

The death penalty is not cost-effective. It costs three times more to execute a prisoner than to lock him up for life. Florida spends more than $3 million per execution, North Carolina and Texas more than $2 million. California would save nearly $100 million annually by resentencing its Death Row inmates to life imprisonment, and making them pay the families of the victims their earnings from their prison labor.

Despite what many politicians, much of the media and the public believe, condemned inmates aren't tying up the courts with endless, frivolous appeals. The costs pile up before and during their trial.

Taxpayers pay dearly for special DA units to prosecute death penalty cases, extra jury selection, special motions, a second penalty phase, lengthy investigations and batteries of witnesses. The time and costs add up because prosecutors and judges try to be legally meticulous and avoid reversal (many are reversed anyway) and the states allocate paltry sums for legal representation for the indigent.

And they get what they pay for. After studying nearly 100 death penalty cases, the ``National Law Journal'' revealed that 1,000 trial lawyers assigned death penalty cases were disbarred, suspended or had other disciplinary charges against them at a rate three times higher than other attorneys, and out of the 60 lawyers handling death penalty cases, half said it was their first case. The attorneys were paid minimum fees by the states, and their requests to hire investigators and other legal experts to present expert testimony were generally turned down.

In the past few years, the states have gotten even chintzier in providing funds for legal defense for the poor. This almost guarantees that the number and cost of death sentence appeals will skyrocket.

Even worse than the wasteful time- and money-consuming process, and shoddy legal representation, the death penalty squanders money that could be spent in drug treatment, counseling, better police training, community policing programs, increased probation staffing and services, education, and job and skills training programs. These are far more effective methods of fighting and preventing crime and violence and would make California's streets safer than snuffing out a relatively few lives each month.

But will anybody listen?
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 17, 1997
Words:1064
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