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THE DEATH PENALTY: SHOULD WISCONSIN REINSTATE?

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Wisconsin is one of the 12 states that do not allow the death penalty. The other 11 include Alaska, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia (Rohn, 2002). The discussion to bring back the death penalty to Wisconsin is always a controversial one. The idea of putting someone to death for a horribly serious crime is a hard decision to make. The idea that an innocent person could be put to death is hard to argue against. On the other hand, why should crimes such as homicide, especially involving children, not require an “eye for an eye” type of punishment?

Wisconsin was one of the first states to abolish the death penalty, approximately 150 years ago. The decision to abolish the death penalty came after a horrible execution in 1851. On July 23, 1850, John murdered his wife, Bridger McCaffary, by drowning her in a large shallow barrel in the couple’s backyard. Neighbors woke to hear Bridget screaming, and saw John climbing out of the barrel. After one of the neighbors pulled Bridget out of the barrel, the police arrested John and took him to the Racine county jail. The jury ruled John “guilty of willful murder” on May 16, 1851, after a 10-day trial. It was the first murder trial ever held in Kenosha (Pendleton & Renfert, 2003a). John McCaffary’s execution was on August 21, 1851, by the method of hanging. The hanging took 18 minutes for the physicians to pronounce John dead, while 2000 to 3000 people watched (Pendleton & Renfert, 2003b).

The death penalty has been around since the ancient laws of China. The first death sentence carried out was in 16th century BC Egypt for the crime of magic. Many crimes besides murder received the death penalty. Methods of the death penalty in ancient times have included burial alive, burning, hanging, beheading, drowning at sea, beating to death, to take one’s own life, impalement, crucifixion, drinking poison, stoning, throwing the criminal from a rock, sawing asunder, use of a quagmire, drawn and quartered, and pressing. The means of execution tended to be different for nobility versus freeman and slaves. Some cultures gave the sentence of the death penalty for every crime convicted, while others picked only certain crimes that would allow for the death penalty (Reggio, 1999). “The most notorious death execution in BC was about 399 BC when the Greek philosopher Socrates was required to drink poison for heresy and corruption of youth” (Reggio, 1999, para. 2). Britain has a long history of capital punishment and was a big influence than any other country on the colonies for sentencing the death penalty (Reggio, 1999)

In Britain, the number of capital offenses continually increased until the 1700’s when two hundred and twenty-two crimes were punishable by death. These included stealing from a house in the amount of forty shillings, stealing from a shop the value of five shillings, robbing a rabbit warren, cutting down a tree, and counterfeiting tax stamps. However, juries tended not to convict when the penalty was great and the crime was not. Reforms began to take place. In 1823, five laws passed, exempting about a hundred crimes from the death [penalty]. Between 1832 and 1837, many capital offenses were swept away. In 1840, there was a failed attempt to abolish all capital punishment. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more and more capital punishments were abolished, not only in Britain, but also all across Europe, until today only a few European countries retain the death penalty (1999, para. 5).

In 1608, George Kendall of Virginia was the first execution in the English American colonies. He was sentenced to death because of plotting to betray the British to the Spanish. Virginia became a state that implemented the death penalty for even minor defenses after 1612. Eventually, the state softened the list of offenses when realizing that no one would want to settle there (Reggio, 1999). “By 1776, most of the colonies had roughly comparable death statutes which covered arson, piracy, treason, murder, sodomy, burglary, robbery, rape, horse-stealing, slave rebellion, and often counterfeiting. Hanging was the usual sentence” (Reggio, 1999, para. 9). Opposers of the death penalty began to write books about it, and claims were made that the murder numbers did not go down, because some juries would not bring back a verdict of guilty for crimes only punishable by death, allowing a guilty murderer to go free (Reggio, 1999). In 1888, the nation’s first execution chair was built in New York after the Edison Company fumbled onto the concept that alternating current could kill animals, so some people reasoned why not use it to kill people (Reggio, 1999).

Senate President Alan Lasee and State Rep. Dean Kaufert are pushing legislation to pass a bill to reinstate the death penalty in Wisconsin regarding certain crimes committed by 16-year-olds and older. They believe the punishment of the death penalty should be used very selectively, including homicide of young children, police officers, and for serial murderers. Governor Doyle does not believe in reinstating the death penalty, though, and will veto the legislation if it passes his desk. The referendum will be on the November 2004 ballot. Examples Lasee gives to support where the death penalty would be appropriate include the 1991 murder of 2-year-old Amy Breyer, the 1992 murder of 10-year-old Ronelle Eichstedt, and the 1994 murders of 12-year-old Cora Jones and 5-year-old Nancy Thao (Dipko, 2003).

In an article dated May 1, 2003, a recent Badger poll is discussed where the death penalty was the topic. The ratings from the poll were 2 out of 3 Wisconsinites favor the death penalty. Many people still voted for the death penalty even if the criminal was guaranteed a life sentence. A question about if one could sentence someone to death, though, produced about a half-and-half vote. Many participants, about 90%, opposed having an execution shown on TV, but most believed that if an execution were shown, it would have high ratings. About half of the participants do not believe that by having a death penalty will make for fewer murders, though. Five hundred and nine residents participated in the poll between April 8 and 15, 2003. Four percentage points was the poll’s margin for error (Callender, 2003).

Some of the arguments opposing the death penalty are executing the innocent, preserving human life, and discrimination. By sentencing someone to the death penalty and learning later through either DNA or confession, that that person was innocent is an uncorrectable error. Today, if an innocent person is sentenced and later found innocent, that person can never get the time served back, but that person can move forward. Some opposers believe all life should be preserved, including a murderer’s life. In addition, the issue of discrimination in about who should be sentenced the death penalty. Is it discrimination to allow only murderers receive the death penalty? On the other hand, will certain races be more subjected to receiving the death penalty? All of these arguments come into play when the issue of the death penalty is raised (Haas, 2003).

Forensic evidence is advanced more than in the previous years, allowing DNA to be used as prime evidence (Fitzgerald, 2003). This should eliminate the thought of convicting an innocent person. However, what about if a confession is forced? In an article written October 27, 2000, two men, Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger, were arrested and convicted of the 1988 murder of Nancy DePriest in Austin, TX. The two men both confessed to the murder because detectives intimidated them with the thought of the death penalty and the detectives told each man separately that the other one was pinning the murder on him. So eventually both men confessed to a crime that neither one had committed, and were given life sentences. It was not until 1996 that the true murderer and reborn Christian, Achim Josef Marino, sent a confession to Austin police. DNA evidence later found that the semen on Nancy DePriest was indeed from Marino, and there was no proof that Ochoa and Danziger on DePriest. Both men were eventually released, but Danziger, from beatings in prison, has mild brain damage (Jackson, 2000). Through DNA testing many convicted have been released. “Although no one on New Jersey’s death row has been exonerated, 27 people on death rows in other states have been cleared of their crimes since 2000, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington” (Fitzgerald, 2003, para. 16).

Discrimination against certain races always plays a part in every controversial issue. Statistics show that the southern states tend to execute more Afro Americans than Caucasians, while northern states tend to do the opposite (Bedau, 1997). Is it because more Afro Americans live in the south or the justice system itself? “Of the 3,200 prisoners on death row in 1996, 40% were black” (Bedau, 1997, para. 4). This statement backwards mean 60% was made up of all the other races. “An exhaustive statistical study of racial discrimination in capital cases in Georgia, for example, showed that “the average odds of receiving a death sentence among all indicted cases were 4.3 times higher in cases with white victims” (Bedau, 1997, para. 5). Therefore, one can assume that discrimination goes both ways in the death penalty, more minorities tend to be sentenced with the death penalty and more death sentences are given when the case involves a white victim (Bedau, 1997).

Another argument against the death penalty could be the cost of reinstating it in Wisconsin. Wisconsin would have to build a death row, employ personnel to work the death row facility, and construct an execution chamber. The cost would roughly be about $2,000,000 to build the death row and construct the execution chamber, and about $516,000 for annual operating costs. “And a Duke University study in 1993 found that the death penalty cost North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of a non-death penalty murder case with a sentence of imprisonment” (Weier, 2003, para. 37). Also noted in the same article, “for instance, a 2002 study by Indiana’s Criminal Law Study Commission found that the total costs of the death penalty exceed the total costs of life without parole sentences by about 38 percent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center” (Weier, 2003, para. 36).

In conclusion, I do not believe the death penalty is necessary for Wisconsin. There is no proven evidence that fewer murders will occur if Wisconsin reinstates the death penalty. I would rather see a convicted murderer have a guaranteed life sentence than the gratification and luxury of death. Murderers want attention, which is why they kill. To allow the death penalty would be giving the murderers more attention to themselves. In addition, the cost of reinstating the death penalty is an unnecessary cost right now for Wisconsin. If I was a member of a family in which someone was murdered, I might think differently, and want that person dead, but my opinion is against it today.