September 28, 2004

Women Voters Discuss Death Penalty

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Yesterday evening, the League of Women Voters of Tompkins County hosted a capital punishment forum at which Patricia Warth law ’96, lawyer for the Capital Defense Fund of Rochester, and George Dentes ’76, Tompkins County District Attorney talked about the effectiveness and cost of the death penalty.

The League, a national non-partisan organization, encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government. As a lobbying group, they are studying capital punishment in order to reach a league-wide consensus on the matter before the current moratorium on the death penalty comes up for review at the next New York State legislative session.

Warth, who opposes capital punishment, criticized the cost of the death penalty in comparison to life without parole.

“Punishment should accomplish the goal of reducing crime in a cost effective manner,” said Warth. “In this regard, the death penalty fails as a law enforcement tool,” she added.

Warth emphasized the human cost of capital punishment as well as the monetary cost.

According to Warth, one study showed that it cost 33-percent more to implement the death penalty in Indiana, versus life in prison without the opportunity for parole.

“This money comes from law enforcement, and is a costly venture that takes funding away from other budgets that may be more effective in fighting crime,” Warth said.

In addition to cost, Warth mentioned unfair application across racial, ethnic and geographic lines, as well as having a negative effect on America’s image worldwide as factors she thinks make the death penalty an institution that should be done away with.

“The rest of the world sees this as a human rights issue, while we here in the U.S. think this is a criminal justice issue,” Warth said. “The U.S. and Japan are the only developed nations with a death penalty — which is a contradiction — while South Africa believes that the right to life and dignity is the most basic of human rights,” added Warth.

Dentes provided the opposing viewpoint of the issue, providing reasons why he thought the death penalty was an effective tool for deterence. He made the distinction between a general deterent which is geared toward the population as a whole, and a specific deterence.

“The death penalty works very well as a specific deterrent — one aimed at a particular individual — because people who are dead kill no more people,” Dentes said. “The death penalty is appropriate punishment in only the most extreme cases, and it keeps inmates from continuing to murder while incarcerated … even inmates have a right to be free of assault,” he added.

Dentes mentioned that the time his office came closest to filing a death notice, a notice that elevates a case to capital punishment, the defendant actually committed suicide before the filing deadline.

Dentes also feels that current forensic techniques, such as using DNA to exonerate an inmate from a past sentence, actually bolster the case for capital punishment.

“If new evidence has been uncovered to throw sufficient doubt on a case, enough that this person is no longer able to be proven guilty, then they are just that — not guilty — but they are not necessarily innocent,” said Dentes. “This shows that our tools are getting better and more precise, so the possibility of executing an innocent person goes down and down,” he added.

Members of the League and the public, including an employee of the maximum security Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, New York, seemed divided over the issue. One member of the League mentioned that she couldn’t handle the responsibility of being a member of the jury in such a case, while the Five Points employee shared why he believes in the necessity of the death penalty.

“One inmate I work with requested to have another bunkmate — he killed his last one — and he couldn’t tell me one reason why I shouldn’t grant his request,” he said.

Archived article by Dennis Dunegan
Sun Contributor