The grim reality of capital punishment

By Ashton Chugh

Justice Rosemary Nation sentenced Bradley Rietze to an automatic life term, without parole for a minimum 25 years, after he admitted to raping and killing 17-year-old Brittney McInnes on January 17, 2010.

Her sister, brother and aunt found McInnes’s half-naked body in the box spring of her bed in their home in S.W. Calgary.

In Pennsylvania, on Dec. 16, 1981, Nicholas Yarris was charged with a similar crime of murder, rape and abduction of a young female sales associate in the Tri-State mall. Yarris was sentenced to death.

Rietze escaped the death penalty in Canada due to a change in legislation 35 years earlier. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s administration narrowly passed Bill C-84 in Parliament 131 to 124 votes, and capital punishment in Canada was abolished in 1976.

Should the death penalty be re-entrenched in our laws? An Angus Reid poll conducted in 2012 found that three in five Canadians support reinstating the death penalty for murder in Canada. Further, 73 per cent of Albertan respondents support reinstating the death penalty. This survey also found that many Canadians believe capital punishment would reduce the probability that members of the general public would offend in the future and believe this would save taxpayers money from having to house prisoners for life.

At first, I was indifferent to the death penalty. A life-life tradeoff seemed fair punishment for murderers like Reitze. After researching the issue, I am surprised at how imperfect our legal system is, and how capital punishment rarely works as it is intended to.

Individuals who commit crimes act impulsively. Many crimes are committed in the heat of the moment and offenders do not always consider the consequences. Many criminals are also more affected by the risk of getting caught than the actual severity of the punishment.

In the United States, the death penalty has not deterred crimes. Also, few people actually receive the death penalty for murder, and when they do receive it, few are executed. In 2003 there were 16,503 homicides in America, and only 144 inmates were sentenced to death. Of the 3,374 inmates on death row in 2003, only 65 were executed. If the death penalty is rarely enforced, how can it scare criminals away from committing crimes?

Another problem with the death penalty, as shown in the U.S., is that not everyone receives equal punishment for similar crimes. Sometimes, judges can administer different punishments for similar types of crimes.

Sadly, neither judges nor the American legal system are above discriminating. In the U.S., many low-income defendants in capital cases are unable to afford their own attorneys. The ones provided to them by the state are often overworked, underpaid and may even lack experience in death penalty cases.

The Innocence Project 2014 documented the case of Jimmy Ray Bromgard, a man arrested for rape who spent 15 years in prison. His trial attorney performed no investigation, filed no pre-trial motions, gave no opening statement, did not prepare for closing arguments, failed to file an appeal and provided no expert to refute testimony of the state’s hair microscopy expert. Other than the forensic testimony and the tentative identification, there was no evidence against Bromgard.

An incompetent counsel provided by the state to low-income citizens can be damaging for innocent convicts with no alternative options.

Occasionally, law enforcement officials — police and prosecutors — lose sight of their professional obligations in place of securing convictions. While the majority of officials are honest and good intentioned individuals, some exist only to further their professional careers.

Bruce Godschalk was convicted of two counts of rape in Pennsylvania. According to the Innocence Project, the state’s evidence at trial included a false confession Godschalk allegedly gave to police, a misidentification by a victim, and testimony from a jailhouse snitch. When DNA evidence surfaced, testing proved that another man had committed the crime for which Godschalk had been wrongly convicted.

The single greatest cause of wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification, which accounts for 75 per cent of all cases. Human memory is not like a tape recorder and can be easily manipulated under high-pressure situations.

Informants have been cited in 15 per cent of wrongful convictions. Some witnesses have been paid to testify in court, or are doing so to reduce their prison sentence. One of the most famous snitches of all time, Leslie Vernon White, once said in an interview with 60 minutes “Don’t go to the pen, send a friend.” White acted as an informer in 225 convictions and would fake confessions of fellow prison inmates without ever having spoken to them. The criminal justice system readily offers the inglorious snitch a way out.

One objective of sentencing is to provide a form of reparation for harm caused to the victim or community. However, an eye-for-an-eye does not always provide closure to those harmed.
The fundamental principle of sentencing is that a sentence should be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender. Therefore, proponents of the death penalty say death is a proportional response to the suffering the perpetrator inflicted on the victim.

But where do we draw the moral line on the type of punishment? We do not impose the punishment of rape on rapists nor do we torture those who are convicted of torture.
How does society weigh the lives of the innocent victims against the lives of guilty murderers?

Many Canadians mistakenly believe a price can be placed on the head of a convicted felon. Most believe execution can save taxpayers money. Life imprisonment without parole costs upwards of $20,000 per year. Capital punishment, on the other hand, costs upwards of $3.2 million.

During the pretrial, investigations can take three to five times longer than non-capital cases, and can take as long as two years to complete. Investigators also require the help of many more professionals such as mental health and medical experts, polygraphers, forensic scientists and jury selection consultants, which add to the overall cost of capital trials.

Because the defendant’s life is at stake, all forms of appeals are pursued, and these appeals can be extremely complex and time consuming. Appeals can cost taxpayers upwards of $170,000.

An expensive legislation to enforce, the death penalty will not provide solace to the families of the victim and it harms the families of the convicted. Family members of the convicted murderer are allowed to watch the execution. Lethal injection is used because it is deemed as “the most humane method of execution.” In practice, this is not always the case as many convicted criminals are painfully sent to their deaths.

The lethal injection consists of the sequential administration of three drugs: beginning with sodium thiopental for anesthesia, pancuronium bromide to induce paralysis and finally potassium chloride to induce cardiac arrest causing death. This process does not always work, and sometimes complications can arise.

During the execution of Bennie Demps in Florida in 2006, officers could not find a vein to administer the lethal injection. Officers botched the execution and Demps bled to death while screaming “they butchered me,” as was reported by ABC News.

In 2011, the manufacturers of sodium thiopental announced they objected to capital punishment, and would stop making the drug. This caused a nationwide shortage. Without the effect of the anesthesia, prisoners experience severe burning and asphyxiation, which has been likened to being buried alive before dying.

Prison staff are not trained to use the medicine that they are administering or how to set up an intravenous line. In 1982, it was reported that a Texas warden prepared chemicals by mixing them together and they clotted causing the prisoner to experience severe and unnecessary pain. Such incompetence has consequences beyond the execution room, as now medical professionals have been sought out to oversee executions.

On Feb. 14, 2006 the U.S. district court issued a ruling in the case of Morales v. California requiring an anesthesiologist to personally oversee the execution or else change the protocol for lethal injections. This ruling contradicts the Hippocratic Oath that physicians take, which states that they use their knowledge to do no harm. Doctors’ participation in executions is professionally unacceptable.

“On Sept. 3, 2003, a U.S. court vacated Yarris’s conviction, and he became the 140th person in the United States to be exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing — the 13th DNA exoneration from death row,” reports the Innocence Project in 2014.

For his wrongful conviction, Yarris subsequently received a $4 million compensation from the government. Afterwards, he studied psychology and wrote an autobiography of his struggle for freedom. Yarris now lives with his wife and daughter, and acts as a poster boy for anti-death penalty lobbyists.

Yarris was the victim of a snitch who was trying to reduce his own prison sentence, and also had the misfortune of having his co-workers mistakenly identify him as the man harassing the female victim on the night of her disappearance.

The debate surrounding capital punishment is likely to continue, but there are avenues for future research that will benefit the judicial system and society as a whole.

More empirical research needs to be conducted on the effects of the media’s coverage of executions and murder trials on people’s attitudes toward the death penalty, and possibly, if this coverage influences violent tendencies. Since the nature of our legal system is designed to reflect public opinion, future research could look at whether high murder rates affect the likelihood of whether a judge will hand down a death sentence to a convict. Also, more research can look at whether high rates of homicide intensify public fear, and if this creates a more punitive response by the judicial system.

The idea that the death penalty can serve as a deterrent effect to would-be offenders is one that is deeply flawed, as it also does not save taxpayers any money. Along with the arbitrariness, discrimination and immorality of the consequences of capital punishment, Canada does not need to reinstate the use of the death penalty because it is not effective.

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