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September 21, 2008

Does money have no place in any life/death debate?

Do readers think a respectable newspaper would boldly assert in an editorial that money has no place in the health care debate?  Or in the debate over the war in Iraq?  I certainly would view such assertions to be misguided, which is why I find foolish this local editorial, headlined "Our view: Money has no place in death penalty debate."  Here are excerpts:

Since capital punishment was re-instated in Indiana in 1977, 94 men and women have been sentenced to death. Of those, 19 convicted murderers have been executed. Five more committed suicide, died of natural causes or were killed by other prisoners.  Others saw their sentences commuted through the appeals process.  Fourteen more await their punishment on Death Row, every facet of each and every case weighed heavily prior to sentencing.

The same diligence must be given in the upcoming Jay County trials of five men and women accused of luring Shawn Buckner to a house where he was brutally beaten before being stabbed in a rural cornfield and later buried in a shallow grave near Dunkirk.

Jay County Prosecutor Robert Clamme said earlier this week -- just eight days after the crime -- that he did not believe he would seek the death penalty. Clamme declined to discuss his reasoning, but local prosecutors point toward the significant cost involved in death penalty cases as the most likely answer.

There are plenty of legitimate arguments both in favor of and against capital punishment that get at the real heart of the issue, that frankly, makes the cost issue ridiculous by comparison.  We're talking about the taking of a human life, not whether or not to purchase a new courthouse. To bring money into the equation only adds to the argument that capital punishment is unjust....

Surely, this was not what legislators intended when the death penalty was re-instated, or what the family of Shawn Buckner deserves.  Whether the county in which he lived and died is fiscally sound shouldn't play into the punishment the courts decide his attackers deserve.

Jay County is just a dot on the map in greater Indiana, but the issue has state-wide ramifications. And as fortunate as East Central Indiana is with a low murder rate, surely this won't be the only time the issue is called into question, especially as property tax freezes deplete local resources.

It's time for discussion on a state-wide level, with a state-wide solution.  Buckner was just one victim, but his life was sacred. His death shouldn't be diminished by finances.

I find ridiculous anyone who advocates a state-wide public policy position to claim that cost is an entirely inappropriate consideration in a debate.  Put simply, it costs millions of dollars for a state to weigh heavily "every facet of each and every case," and thus the death penalty is always going to be an expensive enterprise.  Unless and until taxpayers promise never to complain about tax increases, I find it badly misguided and quite dangerous to assert that cost issues are off the table in a debate over capital punishment.

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September 21, 2008 at 08:19 PM | Permalink


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I think the editorial was a little muddle headed. I don't really think they are saying that cost shouldn't be a part of the debate. What they are saying is that cost shouldn't be the sole (or main) reason for a prosecutor to seek a life-sentence. This is especially true when the cost of the prosecution, as it often happens, falls on the county but the cost of a life-time sentence falls on the state. It is not outrageous to question whether a prosecutor is going for life instead of death simply as a means of cost-shifting. If that is where the paper is headed (and that's how I read the editorial,)then I think that concern is quite rational.

The prosecutor should be making a judgment to seek life or death based upon the facts of the case. Whether the cost of death penalty litigation has become too expensive for the citizens to bear, that is a public policy choice for the legislature to decide; it is not the proper place of the prosecutor to decide that. So long as the death penalty is legal in that state, the state should pay for it.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 21, 2008 9:57:10 PM

Just imagine how bad it's going to become when the courts finally realize just how ineffective the representation most defendants get and suddenly require the sorts of resources now given to DP cases to be expended for every felony trial.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 21, 2008 10:13:21 PM

Of course costs need to be considered. In real life cost is always a consideration. Justice department memos have been issued instructing prosecutors to bring cases where there is substantial forfeiture.

I thought that the editorial writer was using the issue of cost when his (or her) real issue was some kind of victim justice. That's unfortunate.

Posted by: beth curtis | Sep 21, 2008 10:40:33 PM

The government isn't always so concerned with human life and public safety in relation to costs. Take road signs for example.

According to one study, defective signs figure in 20 percent of tort liability actions and are cited as a main cause in 41 percent of serious crashes.

Some years ago I read that the government considers a life worth about $100,000, meaning a person would have to be killed in an accident before the cost of fixing a dangerous intersection with streetlights, or adding railing, was justified.

Posted by: George | Sep 22, 2008 12:27:39 AM

Foolish? That's a pretty harsh assessment. There is some unfairness here, and the editorial is correct to point it out. Of course, there is a reason that DP cases cost so much, and that's where the blame lies.

Posted by: | Sep 22, 2008 11:52:29 AM

on the blame issue, there is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to cost. Most of the multitude of motions that I filed in my last capital trial a few months ago were related to the failure of the State to divulge Brady material.

bruce cunningham

Posted by: | Sep 22, 2008 11:12:00 PM

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