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By Jennifer Maffessanti
Earlier this year, I participated in a press conference announcing the launch of the Georgia Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, which is a statewide network of conservatives and libertarians who believe capital punishment violates our values. The event featured well-known speakers from across the state, and I was proud to take part. However, I wasn’t always opposed to the death penalty.
I was raised as a conservatarian, which is essentially a cross between conservatism and libertarianism, and I supported capital punishment for much of my life. I felt that there were certain crimes that were so heinous that the perpetrator had forfeited their right to live among other humans, and for some time, I didn’t question my death penalty position. Yet, once I became a mother, I started asking myself what kind of world I wanted my children to inherit. So, I became more politically involved and began to critically reexamine my views on a great many things, including the death penalty. Over the course of about 5 years of considering capital punishment, I finally turned against it, and I now view it as little more than a gross overreach of government power.
When I researched capital punishment, I was increasingly shocked by what I found, which is what ultimately changed my thinking. Thus far, over 156 people nationally and 6 in Georgia have been released from death row because they were wrongly convicted. That’s 156+ individuals who easily could have been wrongly executed had the mistakes that led to their convictions not been discovered. Others have indeed been executed even though plenty of questions about their guilt remained. This is a heartbreaking fact, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone.
The staggering number of exonerations indicates that we have some fundamental problems in our criminal justice system. The human element in our judicial process makes the whole idea of a functioning, efficient, and efficacious death penalty absurd. It requires a level of knowledge and insight that is just not possible. There are no greater stakes than life and death, and so long as the death penalty remains an option, innocent lives are endangered.
While the risk to innocent lives is paramount to my death penalty opposition, there are a host of other reasons that gave me pause, including capital punishment’s expensive nature. The monetary costs are shockingly high. This is because capital trials are much longer and require more resources. Then there are several stages of mandatory appeals, while the perpetrator is kept in a special section of prison, death row, which is incredibly costly. All of this quickly adds up and is quite expensive. Statistics vary, but according to a host of studies, the death penalty easily costs many millions more than life without the chance of release.
The taxpayers are charged for this enormously expensive program, but it really doesn’t help ‘We the People.’ I don’t think it deters homicide in the least. Many murders are crimes of passion or they were committed by people with intellectual disabilities. During the commission of these crimes, these individuals weren’t rationally thinking about possible consequences. Therefore, the death penalty fails to adequately protect society, and there are even studies that have clearly made this point.
The impact on murder victims’ families is another issue that demands our attention. It’s often said that capital punishment exists, in part, to serve justice to murder victims’ families, but the process is, in practice, quite harmful to them. Prosecutors who are bent on seeking death frequently offer promises to them, stating that their case is a slam-dunk, which will be resolved quickly and result in an execution. These promises largely never come true. Furthermore, the process is complex and drawn out, which means during every trial appearance, appeal, and media story, the loved ones of the slain must relive their loss and pain. That is cruel in and of itself.
Georgia’s death penalty system is afflicted with the same flaws as any other state’s capital punishment program. We can and must do better, and since nobody has been sentenced to die in Georgia in nearly 3 years, I believe the process of reexamining the death penalty is already underway. However, our goal should be nothing short of eliminating capital punishment because it empowers an error-prone government comprised of flawed humans with a great authority with which it can’t be trusted. Humans are simply too imperfect to apply an irreversible death penalty with regular accuracy. Given what we know, repeal is the only answer.