Iowa does not need death penalty

By The Des Moines Register


The death of two children is a source of grief for their families and friends that cannot be truly appreciated by those not touched by such loss. Yet the tragic fate of Elizabeth Collins and Lyric Cook-Morrissey is felt by the entire state.

It is natural in such times to want the person or persons responsible brought to justice, perhaps even with the ultimate punishment: the death penalty. Calls have been heard that the Legislature should restore the death penalty for certain homicide cases, and at least one lawmaker has pledged to introduce a bill in the 2013 session that would again allow capital punishment in Iowa.

The issue likely will not be pursued, however, since a death-penalty bill would be almost impossible to get through the Iowa Senate and its Democrat majority.

That is as it should be, and saying so takes nothing away from the grieving survivors of murder victims. While some survivors may be willing to express forgiveness, others may want vengeance visited on the accused. Ultimately the state must decide what punishment is appropriate for each crime after a dispassionate assessment of the facts and a fair trial.

An execution at the hands of the state is the ultimate penalty in this country. The government’s power to take a life is an awesome power, and it should never be undertaken lightly. Iowa has practiced capital punishment, on and off, dating back to its territorial days. The death penalty was repealed in 1872, restored six years later and repealed again in 1965. Since then, lawmakers have resisted several efforts to bring it back.

There are many sensible public policy reasons why it was wise to abolish capital punishment, not the least of which is the extraordinary cost associated with prosecuting capital punishment cases. The constitutional and procedural hurdles have driven the cost of capital cases to staggering heights. Florida’s 44 executions since 1976, for example, cost taxpayers $24 million for each execution.

Even law-enforcement authorities who may agree with the principle of executing murderers doubt its deterrent effect, and they say that money is better spent on effective crime control.

The procedural hurdles in death penalty cases were created for a very good reason: It would add injustice to injustice for the state to execute the wrong person. And yet it has almost certainly happened in this country. By its latest count, the Death Penalty Information Center lists 142 inmates who have been released from death row after being exonerated — that is, they were acquitted at retrial, charges were dropped or they were pardoned based on new evidence of innocence.

The state can at least correct its mistake when it discovers someone serving a life sentence was wrongly convicted. It has no opportunity when the wrong person is executed.

This is not mere speculation.

This month, a jury in Polk County heard testimony in a wrongful-conviction lawsuit by two Omaha men — Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee — who spent 25 years in Iowa prison for the 1977 murder of a retired Council Bluffs police officer. They were released in 2003 after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that they had not received a fair trial because vital evidence showing their innocence was withheld by prosecutors at their trial.

Pottawattamie County earlier settled for $12 million a similar lawsuit against county prosecutors who were accused of intentionally framing the two men.

Though police and prosecutors insist they did not convict the wrong men in this case, powerful evidence has come to light that suggests otherwise. They likely would not be alive today to argue their innocence had the death penalty been available in Iowa at the time of their convictions.

Apart from the moral question of state killing, perhaps capital punishment could be justified if errors could be eliminated, if it were not applied disproportionately to minorities and if the same legal resources were allocated to a capital defendant as to, say, a Wall Street executive accused of bilking investors. None of those could be achieved, however, and there is an appropriate alternative: life in prison without parole.

That is the law in Iowa now, and that is how it should remain. The state should devote the political energy and resources that might otherwise be squandered on this debate to finding meaningful ways to protect all children from harm in this state.


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