This op-ed originally appeared in the Deseret News.
I didn’t always oppose the death penalty. In fact, when someone on my team told me that our organization should take a stand against it, I scoffed. I couldn’t imagine not putting murderers to death for their egregious crimes.
But the truth was that I wasn’t familiar with the arguments against capital punishment. Mine was an opinion rooted in well-intentioned ignorance, but ignorance all the same.
Things changed when, a year later, I read “Getting Life” by Michael Morton, the memoir of a man who was convicted of killing his wife — a crime he didn’t commit. It took 25 years for the “justice” system to set him free after destroying his life and ruining his relationship with his only son, who spent his entire life believing that his father had killed his mother.
I sobbed at the end of the story, amazed at how Michael had found peace and forgiveness despite the difficult circumstances he was forced to face. I wondered if I could do the same, dealing with prosecutorial corruption and countless problems with the system.
And then I had the thought: Michael was lucky to still be alive.
Had Michael been sentenced to death for the crime, he may have been a statistic like so many others who were executed wrongfully by the government. Since 1973, there have been 185 individuals wrongfully sentenced to death in the U.S. and later exonerated — and that’s just the ones who were still alive. No one bothers to spend taxpayer dollars investigating the innocence of the already dead.
Reading Michael’s story compelled me to study the circumstances surrounding the death penalty for the first time — and what I found wasn’t pretty. I learned that taxpayers are compelled to pay millions of dollars for court processes and appeals for death penalty cases, even if the sentence is later reduced, as it often is. And though I wondered if the process should be streamlined, I came to understand that these appeals and reviews are necessary to ensure the constitutionally protected rights of the accused.
I discovered that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent to crime, at all. Oddly, the opposite is true; states without a death penalty actually have a lower murder rate.
I read stories of traumatized victim family members whose wounds were opened afresh at each required appeal hearing, forced to watch the killer of their loved one become a celebrity, of sorts.
Most alarmingly, I came to realize that what prosecutors were telling these victim family members was nothing more than a counterfeit promise. They knew that seeking the death penalty was more for show and politics than a likely outcome. They know that in Utah, the last two people to die on death row lost their life, decades after their sentences, to natural causes.
I grew up in a very Republican home. Conservatism runs through my veins, and I preach limited government on every occasion I can. I now understand that the government’s ability to execute a person is as horrifying a case of “big government” as one can imagine.
I visited recently with a man who lost a loved one in a horrible shooting incident. The death penalty is being considered for this case, and the man was clearly torn about whether this possible sentence was a good idea. Ultimately, he said that after everything this killer had done, he couldn’t imagine letting the man take away one more thing: his humanity.
I’m pro-life, through and through. And my research into capital punishment’s many problems has led me to realize that the conservative, limited government, pro-life method of ensuring justice against a killer is not the “counterfeit promise” of an unlikely death penalty, but rather sentencing them to life without the possibility of parole. It’s the tried-and-true, “lock them up and throw away the key” option.
A life without parole sentence provides closure to victim family members by allowing them to move on and heal without having to deal with so many court appeals and public obsession over the killer. It reduces the cost to spare taxpayers the burden of paying for a promised outcome that will likely never arrive. And it ensures that if the person is actually innocent, as Michael was, then they’re still alive to be released from prison.
No policy is perfect, and any option has its trade-offs. But the death penalty’s record is a horrible one that creates many other problems in the name of being a supposed solution. Lawmakers should thoughtfully consider these problems in the upcoming legislative session to repeal and replace the death penalty.
Justice demands it.