“Proponents of capital punishment … underestimat[e] the gravity of interminable confinement . . . . a caged life of wretched sameness, devoid of meaning and meaningful human contact.” — Bishop George Leo Thomas1
The death penalty attracts public support because it is a symbol of severe punishment for murderers, but life without parole is itself a severe and appropriate punishment. Life Without Parole (LWOP) provides a less costly, expedient, and safe way to permanently protect members of the community from convicted murderers.
The myth of prison murder: Lifers and the death penalty
Some say that we need the death penalty to punish those who kill while serving a life sentence. But this assumes both that lifers are prison troublemakers undeterred by other sanctions, and that the death penalty for lifers acts as a deterrent to prison murder. Not only are both assumptions false, but using the death penalty for lifers risks executing the innocent and draws resources from cheaper, proven methods of preventing prison murder.
“Lifers, contrary to popular belief, are model prisoners. I have been in contact with hundreds of them during my years in penal work. They are industrious, as a rule, and give wardens the least trouble. Many of them are first offenders. Some committed murder during a moment of blind fury and have never ceased repenting their misdeeds.” -– Louis F. Lawes,former warden at Sing Sing Prison, NY
Lifers are model prisoners
- Virtually all studies and accounts of lifers in prison indicate that they are model prisoners. This is true even when studies control for factors like age, race, and intelligence. Though homicides do occur in prisons, most are committed by people serving shorter sentences for lesser crimes.
- In a survey of correctional workers from across the country, 89% reported that lifers presented fewer disciplinary problems than the general population, and 92% said lifers were more cooperative.
- The rate of murder in prison is lower than the murder rate on the outside. Prison staff are a full 82 times less likely to be murdered by an inmate than the average person outside.
- The death penalty risks executing the innocent. That risk does not go away simply because the murder happened in a prison. Consider some of the real life examples:The case of Joe Amrine: In July 2003, Joe Amrine became the 111th person in the country sentenced to death and later exonerated. Amrine, serving a short sentence for check kiting in Missouri, was convicted of a 1985 prison stabbing solely on the testimony of three other inmates. His trial attorney conducted no independent investigation.
Over time all three inmates recanted, saying prison officials pressured them to finger Amrine. A prison guard consistently said he saw one of the three prison “witnesses” fleeing the crime scene. In April 2003 state courts concluded Amrine was actually innocent.
After 17 years on death row, he was finally released in July 2003.
The case of David Wong: David Wong was serving time in New York for robbery when he was convicted of murdering fellow inmate Tyrone Julius. No physical evidence tied to Wong to the murder. The medical examiner testified that the assailant’s clothes would have been soaked with blood. Yet Wong’s clothes were clean. The key witness in the case was a guard who stated the murderer was white and only later changed his mind and decided the killer was Asian.
The second witness was an inmate who received a transfer, several hundred dollars, and a parole recommendation in exchange for his testimony. He later stated that the sergeant who questioned him fed him his testimony. The prosecutor hid evidence that another man committed the crime, and 21 witnesses swore that Wong was innocent.
Finally, in December 2004, Wong was exonerated and released.
The case of Roy Roberts: Roy Roberts was convicted in 1979 of robbing a restaurant. He was a model prisoner, earning two degrees while incarcerated, but in 1983, he took part in a drunken prison riot that led to the stabbing death of a guard. Blood stains easily implicated two other inmates. There was neither physical evidence nor a weapon tying Roberts to the crime, and one guard specifically said Roberts was elsewhere during the stabbing.
At 337 pounds, Roberts stood out “like a red rose in the Sahara Desert,” as one guard put it. Yet the first eyewitness reports and the initial DOC report made no mention of Roberts. Only later did a guard with a grudge suddenly finger Roberts.
A month before he was executed, despite compelling doubts about his guilt, another man confessed to the restaurant robbery that put Roberts in jail in the first place.
- Wrongful convictions are just as likely in prison as on the outside. In fact, fellow prisoners are easily persuaded to snitch in exchange for better treatment, increasing the risk of wrongful convictions. Even strong doubts like those in Roy Roberts’ case will never be enough to bring him back.
“A flagrant weakness of the deterrence argument is that it assumes that imprisoned murderers will be deterred from killing by the same threat that, before prison, was insufficient to deter…” — Hugo Bedau, The Death Penalty in America
The death penalty for lifers is not a deterrent
- If the death penalty deterred prison murders, one would expect that there would be more prison murders in non-death penalty states, where prisoners serving a life sentence had “nothing to lose.” Yet over 90% of prison murders occur in jurisdictions with the death penalty.
- The percentage of people convicted of murder who then murder again is only one fifth of one percent – regardless of whether the state does or does not have the death penalty. The threat of death in those states where it is available does not have even an incremental effect on that rate.
The use of resources: preventing prison murder
The death penalty is shown to cost millions more than a system of life in prison. Rather than uphold an extremely expensive system to target the one-quarter of one percent of lifers who might kill in prison, such resources would be better spent preventing prison murders at a fraction of the cost. One California prison lowered its number of fatal stabbings by 94% simply by removing the sheet metal shop from its prison industry. Other prisons have removed blind spots, increased security in high-risk areas, and placed more vulnerable inmates in special units to maximize staff protection.
“The bottom line, however, is clear. No one sentenced to life without parole can be paroled.” — Gary Hilton, former New Jersey State Prison Warden (testifying before the NJ Death Penalty Study Commission).
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