Saturday, April 07, 2012

An Interview With Don Pesci On Death Penalty Abolition


Q: The death penalty was abolished by the Senate on April 5. It’s a virtual certainty that the House also will approve the Democrat inspired bill. Do you feel safer?
A: Can’t say. Part of the abolition bluster was that the death penalty did not prevent murders, always a questionable assumption.

Q: “Bluster?” What ever can you mean?

A: It was never a serious proposition, just a useful piece of propaganda.

Q: But the polls!

A: Think of what is meant when it is said that a punishment deters crime. How do you collect reliable data showing that the death penalty – or, indeed, any punishment – deters an action? Reliable data retrieval showing that the death penalty has deterred Mr. Smith from murdering Mrs. Smith cannot be collected from Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith is invisible. And if he’s smart, he will choose to remain invisible. The pollster can’t find him.  Mr. Smith is not likely to step out of the shadows and volunteer that he was contemplating the murder of his wife. The police still toss you into jail for attempted murder.  Polls showing that murder is deterred OR NOT DETERRED by capital punishment are so highly attenuated as to border on surmise, mere guesswork. We assume that punishment deters because when we were little boys and girls punished by our parents for some innocent crime, we chose to refrain from recidivism. Dostoyevsky wrote a whole novel about crime and punishment, concluding at the end of it that a sense of honor, religious prescriptions and the tug of conscience very well might lead to confession and redemption. But crime prevention? In the absence of the virtues that may quicken the conscience and lead to genuine redemption, a policeman under every bed in the United States could not deter crime. Like the poor, crime will always be with us. The only question open for discussion is: What do you do with the criminal?

Q: You are not saying, are you, that punishment CANNOT deter crime?

A: That’s right. I am merely saying that deterrence cannot be accurately measured.

Q: The Democrats who approved abolition placed in their bill a provision that would retain Death Row for inmates who had been found guilty of heinous crimes; the death penalty was eliminated, but not Death Row. Why?

A: That is a good question. There are a number of possibilities. Politically, it was a shrewd thing to do. We do not know whether Mr. Williams’ intention was punitive, but it seems so. In a post-repeal interview, Mr. Williams confessed that his ploy was primarily political. Following a visit to Death Row, Mr. Williams returned to meet with abolition legislators at the capitol. On April 9, a couple of days after the vote, CTMirror reporter Mark Pazniokas wrote “ Williams and Looney concluded that repeal was possible only if those sentenced to the new crime of murder with special circumstances faced conditions closer to death row than MacDougall.”

The Democrats could hardly argue that the new punishment tier they had established, “crime with special circumstances,” would deter murder, having argued that the death penalty itself was not a deterrent. Probably it was offered as political bait to draw in legislators fearful that a vote for abolition might be interpreted by voters in the upcoming election as indicating they were “soft on crime.” And, of course, the measure retains the union infused punishment apparatus.  Democrats are big on unionization.  One has the impression that any proposal made by any Democrat to save money through de-unionization might earn them a ticket to Death Row. Chris Powell, the managing Editor of the Journal Inquirer and its primary columnist, raised some questions about the new punishment tier, but he was the only one.    

Q: One of the other points raised against the death penalty by Senate President Don Williams prior to the vote to abolish was that it had been randomly applied: Not everyone who committed murder in Connecticut has been sentenced to death.

A: And a good thing too. In practice, Connecticut’s death penalty punishment was applied ONLY if certain circumstances had been met. Not every murderer qualified. You had to work really hard to merit the death penalty. It is no argument in favor of the abolition of a punishment – say, ticketing for speeding – to say that not everyone who commits the offense is punished. This is an infantile objection: “Mommy, he did it too. How come only I got sent to bed?” Should we abolish ticketing for excessive speed on the highways because – just to fetch for a figure – 98 percent of speeders are not ticketed and of those ticketed 99 percent are not brought to trial? Grow up!

Q: Personally, I would be in favor of abolishing the practice of ticketing for any reason, however specious.

A: Of course you would. I’ve driven with you.

Q: Another argument was that the penalty once applied was irreversible.

A: People who said that the death penalty could be applied in error had to travel outside the confines of Connecticut to find such instances. Or they presented their objection as a theoretical proposition. No one awaiting death on Connecticut’s death row has been mistakenly led there by judicial error.

Q: But the appeals!

A: A means of postponing punishment, a judicial means of jury nullification.

Q: And the money spent!

A: Legal assistance is expensive, most especially when it is supplied “for free” by the state. The economic argument for abolition is possibly the least convincing. If you want a Cadillac justice system, you have to pay Cadillac prices. Towards the end of the debate in the Senate, a provision was introduced in the bill designed expressly to turn some “moderate” legislators towards abolition. The state would create a special process for convicted murderers it no longer could execute. They would be treated in the same manner as death row inmates. The death penalty would be abolished, but death row – very expensive – would remain for murderers who, under the abolished law, were separated and treated differently than, say, prisoners who were jailed because they had too often been randomly arrested for speeding. Given an opportunity to abolish a dollar swallowing death row along with the death penalty, precisely those senators who had argued that the death penalty process was too expensive to maintain chose to retain death row. No one laughed.  How expensive might it be to retain Joshua Komisarjevsky in prison for life in a death row like environment?  He is a very young man and, of course, all the arguments utilized to abolish the death penalty minus one (irreversibility in case of error) may also be used to argue for the abolition of life in prison. No doubt, tax supported defense attorneys will be permitted to make just such very expensive arguments through the state’s sometimes redundant appeal system. The abolition bill does not and cannot prevent pointless appeals. These are measurable costs. Why have they not been measured? Why has no conscience stricken, economic minded opponent of the death penalty turned his rhetorical fire on a life in prison sentence that will be prohibitively expensive?              

Q: Why?

A: Because dollars spent on the judicial system – the bulk of which find their way into the salaries of judges, lawyers, some of them legislators, and prison officials --   is a straw man issue, wholly irrelevant. If legislators were concerned about expense, they would have abolished death row.

Q: Well, you don’t have to get so huffy.
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