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What are the true costs and what is the purpose? And what might we discern from the fact that a Florida prisoner could engage in ``suicide by governor'' by dropping his appeals with the knowledge that Bush would set an execution date?
First let us examine the costs. As with any government program, taxpayers should ask whether they are getting their money's worth. John Blackwelder's execution Wednesday, after a day's delay, was the 59th in Florida since John Spenkelink died inthe electric chair in 1979. Fifty-nine executions in 25 years, at a cost of more than $1 billion.
Why is it so expensive to execute? In 1988 it was estimated that Florida spent an average of $3.2 million per death penalty case - when it goes all the way to execution. But that 1988 figure does not include the hidden costs of the death penalty, costs that start adding up even before a state attorney decides to seek the ultimate sanction.
Consider all of the expenses involved in a system that allows for executions, including the attorneys on both sides who focus just on capital cases, another set of attorneys who handle appeals and the additional costs of maintaining one of the largest death rows in the nation.
Consider the extra costs of our court system: Former Chief Justice Gerald Kogan states that the Florida Supreme Court spends 50 percent of its time on 3 percent of its cases - the death penalty cases.
Factor in that until 1998, Florida death sentences were reversed at an alarming rate of 74 percent, exposing just how much of our investment in the death penalty is wasted. It is little consolation that the reversal rate since 1998 is down to 50 percent. In 1999 it was estimated that Florida would save a minimum of $51 million annually by doing away with the death penalty and using the alternative - life without parole - in all cases.
Politicians tell us the death penalty is ``for the victims' families.'' But if that is true, one must conclude that we do not use the death penalty nearly enough. Fewer than 3 percent of those who could get a death sentence actually get it, and far fewer than half of those sentenced to death actually get executed. What makes a tiny minority of murder victims more valuable than the other 99 percent? If it is your loved one who was killed, then is not that murder among the worst?
Despite what politicians tell us, victims' families will never get ``closure'' from an execution. Where there is a death sentence in Florida, the victims' family must put on hold the so- called healing process for 10, 12, even as long as 25 years. There is no such thing as closure, because there will always be an empty chair at the dining room table where a loved one once sat.
These days ``life without parole'' means exactly that. The healing process can begin when the case is over, after conviction and sentence - not 10 to 25 years later. The killer disappears into anonymity instead of becoming a celebrity, complete with a press conference and his choice of a final meal when the end finally comes.
Increasingly, death row inmates are dropping their appeals and ``volunteering'' to be executed. Blackwelder was such a case, but with a frightening twist. Serving a life sentence, Blackwelder killed his cellmate and insisted on a death sentence as his way of getting a state-assisted suicide.
The death penalty is just another flawed government program. No amount of killing can bring back our loved ones or equal their value. Given a choice, most Floridians would rather see the millions of dollars we spend each year on the death penalty put into services for victims' families and for prevention and education programs.
Abraham J. Bonowitz is the director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (
Abraham J. Bonowitz is the director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (www.FADP.org).
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