A bill in the Colorado Legislature to do away with the death penalty generated some unusual testimony Monday as families of murder victims spoke in its favor. Our lawmakers should heed their advice and advance the bill.
Capital punishment is an expensive an-achronism. The money and the effort it requires would be better used elsewhere.
House Bill 1274 would do that. It would end capital punishment in Colorado and redirect money now used to prosecute death-penalty cases to clear up some of the state's 1,400 unsolved murders. The victims' relatives who testified Monday support the bill in the hope of learning what happened to their loved ones and perhaps seeing their killers caught.
It is a compelling argument, made all the more so by mounting evidence that capital punishment not only costs too much, it is more expensive than life in prison. And regardless of the outcome, why would society want to devote more money to convicted murderers?
Supporters of capital punishment argue that it deters other potential criminals, that it absolutely prevents recidivism and that it is fair. But only the fact that those who are executed commit no further crimes is indisputable, and that is offset by the equally well established fact that innocent people are sometimes convicted of capital crimes.
Still, public support for capital punishment is strong. Many think that some cases are so heinous that no other punishment fits the crime, while others couch the issue as a simple question of justice.
For their part, opponents of the death penalty point out that killing a murderer is still killing. They worry about its finality and point to how many convictions are overturned years later when new evidence comes to light, new technologies appear or courtroom irregularities are discovered.
In trying to balance those competing concerns, however, we have instead created a system that satisfies no one. Recognizing public sentiment and anger at specific crimes, district attorneys continue to seek the death penalty. At the same time, in a nod to the irrevocable nature of the death penalty, and trying to ensure justice, we add extra lawyers, automatic appeals and two-stage trials to capital cases.
The result is a penalty imposed so rarely as to be almost random, and so costly as to be ridiculous. Colorado last imposed the death penalty in 1997, for a crime committed in 1986. There are now two men on the state's death row; one has been there since 1996.
A state of California commission said last year that it costs that state $90,000 per year more to house a prisoner on death row than the $34,150 regular prison costs, and that seeking the death penalty adds $500,000 to the cost of the trial. Getting a death sentence and keeping that convict on death row for 10 years would therefore cost as much as 40 years in prison. And that does not include the cost of the seemingly endless appeals typical in such cases.
The days when justice amounted to a fair trial and a hanging are not coming back. But the death penalty is incompatible with a more sophisticated legal system concerned with fairness, accuracy - and costs. The Legislature should pass House Bill 1274 and put the money saved toward cold cases. Fourteen hundred unsolved murders is itself a crime.