Friday, February 26, 2010

Text of Remarks Kentucky Libertarian Party Annual Convention

The Death Penalty is Killing Itself

Text of Remarks

To the

Kentucky Libertarian Party
February 27, 2010
Lexington, KY

The Death Penalty is Killing Itself


Donald Vish
Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Thank you for entrusting your podium to me. We all know there’s no thief worse than a bad speech to a captive audience. A wise old stump speaker from that place I’ll just call ‘down-home’ once told me that the worst speakers make speeches that are always fixin’ to get ready to get started. I am not going to do that. I’m going to get to the point right away which is this: the death penalty is too broke to fix, to risky to use and too expensive to keep. It is the penal equivalent of Russian roulette: ruled by the laws of chance that most of the time make nothing happen.

But we may be on the verge of a lot happening. The attorney general has requested three death warrants from the governor. Before the governor could act on the request in November, the Kentucky Supreme Court suspended executions in Kentucky until the Kentucky Department of Corrections published the details of the procedures it uses for executions and took public comments on the procedures. Those steps have been taken and the execution protocols are on their way to the governor’s desk for signature. On their way to the governor’s desk, the procedures must go through a legislative committee. The governor has said he will sign the protocols when they arrive. So execution procedures could be back on the books by April or May which means Kentucky could have multiple executions in 2010: at least three and this in a state that has executed only four people in the last 53 years.

Lethal Injection: Humane Executions

The Holy Grail of modern civilized executions is to have someone dead, not to make someone dead much less to actually kill anyone. The civilized execution seeks to perfect a process that has only a past tense, a protocol that takes the dying out of death and the killing out of killed. Civilized killing aspires to be a sentence without a verb. In a perfect execution, nothing happens, there is no beginning or middle and the end is always in the remote past. The coroner has to announce later that it happened earlier. The civilized execution is a perfect demonstration of the proverb: nothing produces nothing made all the more remarkable by having done it with nobody.

In the humane execution the actual executioner is merely unknown but in the perfect execution lethal injection strives to achieve, there is no executioner, a perfect illustration of the dictum: everybody’s business is nobody’s business.

The humane execution is choreographed to occlude its entanglement with brutality, barbarism, violence or a freakish and lingering death, to silence the voice of pain. So the body sleeps in muscular paralysis so one knows if it wakes up.

The execution is disguised to resemble a medical procedure. Trappings of humanitarianism, healing and kindness conceal the reality: there’s a noose in the needle.

Death Penalty History Condemns Itself

The modern history of death penalty in Kentucky undermines its own credibility as a just, legitimate and effective instrument of public policy. Since 1956, there have been thousands of murders committed in Kentucky and many were eligible for a death sentence.

Today, there are 35 people on death row and four people have been executed in the last 53 years.

Kelly Moss was electrocuted against his will in 1962; Harold McQueen was electrocuted against his will in 1997; Eddie Lee Harper decided to stop his legal appeals and requested execution by lethal injection in 1999; Marco Chapman dismissed his lawyers and his legal appeals and was executed by lethal injection in 2008.

The modern history of the death penalty in Kentucky mocks itself as a penal option that is intended to deter crime, exact retribution for heinous murders and provide society with the comfort and closure that comes from knowing that justice will be done though the heavens may fall.

How can four executions in 53 years deter anyone from doing anything? What does it say to victims’ families, friends and society at-large that out of thousands of murders in 53 years only 4 were deemed sufficiently heinous to merit execution? What is the citizenry to make of a system that can take up to thirty years to conclude its official deliberations?

What are judges, law enforcement officials and citizens to make of a justice system that seems to select for execution only those murderers that share, shall we say, certain similar demographics and even ‘geographics’? And how shall we reconcile our social and civic and legal commitment to fairness and the even-handed administration of the law with the knowledge that innocent people have been sent to death row?

The Death Penalty Doesn’t Work

The death penalty is a failure on every level: legal, social, political, penal, financial and moral.

First, there is no way to kill humanely.

Secondly, there is no way to kill in compliance with constitutional procedures.

Thirdly, there is no way to kill without the risk that innocent people will be executed.

Fourthly, administration of the death penalty has failed to deter heinous murders in Kentucky and to exact proportional retribution for and from the worst of the worst.

Finally, the people are not getting their money’s worth from an unnecessary system that serves no penological purpose.

In Kentucky, the death penalty makes nothing happen.

Nationally, it is sanctioned by the law of the land but seems to be ruled by the law of unintended consequences when it is not being ruled by the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics (also known as Murphy’s Law). A recent example of Murphy’s law is furnished by a lethal injection attempt in Ohio where a prisoner in the death chamber was repeatedly stuck with a needle to administer the lethal drugs but was eventually sent back to his cell when the prison personnel could not find a vein to use. And a recent example of the law of unintended consequences is furnished by an FBI report that showed states with high death penalty usage have a higher murder rate!

Law of Lightening

Imposition of the death penalty has been analogized to the capriciousness of lightening. The comparison is unfair. It is much easier to predict WHERE the death penalty will be used than to predict where lightening might strike. The death penalty has a measurable geographic vortex. The geography of the death penalty is so pronounced that it is an exercise of poetic license to say the United States endorses the death penalty. Actually, most places in the United States do not use the death penalty.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977

• more than two-thirds of American counties have never imposed it and
• Only 3 percent (92 out of 3,066) of the nation’s counties have generated 50 percent of its death sentences.

Death Penalty Use is Limited and in Decline

The death penalty has become an embarrassment to our legal system. Its administration has undermined public confidence in the way the law works. The best thing its supporters can say about it is the best thing its opponents can say about it: it’s not used very much.

In fact, in some precincts, both social and geographic, it’s not used at all.
In 2009, eighty-seven percent of executions in the United States were in the south, and over half of those were in Texas. A single county in Texas has furnished more than 33 percent of the state’s death row population.

While 35 states have the death penalty, executions are clustered in just a few. There have been 1,188 executions since 1977 and 54 percent of those have come from three states: Texas, with 447 (37.6 percent),Virginia with 105 and Oklahoma with 91.

Even where the death penalty is used, its use is declining. There were fewer death sentences in 2009 than any year since executions resumed in 1977. Death sentences reached a high point in 1994, 328, and since then have declined 63 percent. 2009 is the seventh straight year the number of death sentences has declined.


Justification for the death penalty has been based on the penal goals of deterrence and retribution. But in 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment, the homicide rates are below the national average and FBI data shows that half of the states with the death penalty have murder rates above the national average. A New York Times analysis found that over the last 20 years, states with the death penalty have murder rates between 48 percent to 101 percent HIGHER than states without the death penalty (December 14, 2009 New York Times.)


Gallup polls show that among those who support the death penalty, retribution is most often cited as the reason. A June 30, 2006 Gallup poll, citing a 2003 Gallup study stated:

The reason is very likely their concept of justice. According to a 2003 Gallup study, close to half of Americans who supported the death penalty cited some aspect of retribution for the crime as the reason. [An October 13, 2009 Gallup Poll updates public opinion on the death penalty reporting 65% of Americans continue to support the use of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, while 31% oppose it -- continuing a trend that has shown little change over the last six years. ]

The most recent 2009 Gallup poll on death penalty support does not update the 2003 findings about the reasons for support of capital punishment nor does it update the 2006 finding, quoted in the 2009 study:

An Explicit Alternative to the Death Penalty? Gallup research has found that support for the death penalty is lower if Americans are offered an explicit alternative -- "life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole." In May 2006, for example, 65% of Americans supported the death penalty in general (matching the current figure),while,separately,47% said they preferred the death penalty to life imprisonment as a penalty for murder when given that choice (48% favored life imprisonment).

The Gallop finding is consistent with a 2006 University of Kentucky poll that found 67% of Kentucky residents questioned preferred a long prison sentence over execution for those convicted of murder. As part of a larger statewide survey in August and September, 2006 the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center asked 836 randomly selected Kentuckians over age 18 which of five possible punishments was most appropriate for someone convicted of aggravated murder.

Findings include:

• 36.2 percent favored life with no possibility of parole.
• 31.4 percent favored one of three other prison sentences: life without parole for 20 years, life without parole for 25 years, 20 to 50 years with no parole possible until 85 percent of the sentence is served.
• 30.5 percent favored the death penalty.

Balancing Retribution with Risk of Executing the Innocent

Gallop surveys have stated the retribution case in four ways: 1) the punishment fits the crime (37%); 2) the criminal deserves the punishment (13%); 3) it is fair 3%) and 4) it serves justice (4%) (Gallop Poll June 30, 2006 citing a 2003 Gallop survey) most of which may be summed up in the dictum ‘an eye for an eye.’

So the retribution case has two overarching formulations: (1) the punishment fits the crime (37%) and (2) the criminal deserves the punishment (20%).

When New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, Governor Richardson acknowledged the retribution theory. But he rejected the practice because of the possibility of executing an innocent person. He concluded that life in prison without possibility of parole was a just penalty and adequate retribution perhaps even worse than death.

Governor Richardson’s concern about executing the innocent is well founded. Since 1977, 139 death row prisoners have been exonerated (in most cases ‘exonerated’ means the defendant was acquitted upon retrial and in a handful of cases ‘exoneration’ means the defendant was declared innocent based on DNA evidence). And now there is a 2009 report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission that points toward the conclusion that Texas executed an innocent man in 1991. Cameron Todd Willingham was electrocuted in 1991 for the arson murder of his three children. The new report finds that the arson claims were not sustainable (although this finding is hotly contested by some law enforcement officials). Resolution of the matter awaits adjudication by the State of Texas but progress is on hold since the Governor recently changed the composition of the committee assigned to sort out the facts and findings.

In Kentucky, the very recent Louisville case of Edwin A. Chandler is cause for grave concern. The judge that released Chandler in 2009 apologized to him from the bench (he was not the original sentencing judge) and called his case a miscarriage of justice. Chandler served nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit during a robbery he had nothing to do with. He could have received the death penalty.

Chandler’s innocence claims were corroborated by an eye witness that called the police and said that Chandler was not the shooter (but the witness was never called to testify at trial), by a fingerprint and DNA sample at the crime scene that was not found until years later and by a convenience store surveillance tape that the police lost before Chandler’s trial. The jury that convicted Chandler was ‘death qualified’ during voir dire meaning the state could have asked for the death penalty. But by closing argument it did not even though Chandler was convicted. The jury decision was based in part on the strength of Chandler’s actual confession to the crime which he said he made it in response to a threat by police to prosecute his family for being criminal accessories to murder if he did not.

Policy Conundrums
Retribution with Kindness

Administration of capital punishment requires navigating between the separate worlds of too much and not enough. The dual imperatives of getting more blood for blood in a humane way while at the same time satisfying the sense of equivalence that distinguishes retributive justice are impossible to reconcile.

How can a punishment informed by a sense of justice that imposes retributive equivalence be harmonized with the quest for a painless execution? How can the state methodically kill a person as an act of just retribution and at the same time comport with standards of decency that distinguish a civilized society? How can killing be kindness? How does the state reconcile the conflicting imperatives of retributive equivalence and humane execution?

Dr. Alfred P. Southwick thought he had the answer to the question in 1890 after ten years of work on his invention: the electric chair. Upon witnessing its first jolt in 1890 on killer William Kemmler, Dr. Southwick exclaimed:

There is the culmination of ten years work and study! We live in a higher civilization from this day.

Dr. Southwick didn’t know it when he spoke but the first jolt failed to kill Kemmler and George Westinghouse later said of the messy execution that ensued:

It could have been done better with an ax.

Lethal injection is the direct successor to Dr. Southwick’s 19th search for a method of premeditated, ritualized and efficient killing that demonstrates that we live in a higher civilization. Other methods have proved to have too much potential for misadventure to compete for the oxymoronic title of humane killing.

Legal Conundrums

Capital punishment has placed the constitution on a collision course with itself. On the one hand the constitution requires wise discretion applied to the special facts of every death penalty case and on the other hand the use of an objective, uniform standard consistently applied to all persons in all death penalty cases. In reinstating the death penalty in 1976, the U. S. Supreme Court approved state death penalty laws that yoked together the two disparate requirements under a due process template of the Model Penal Code called "guided discretion." But guided discretion is a contradiction of terms: the more there is of one, the less there is of the other. As a result, the 'guided discretion' templates aims for a very narrow target, perhaps a theoretical target, and is always in danger of erring either on the side of arbitrariness or on the side of inflexibility. The difficulty in applying the guided discretion standard is the reason why so many death penalty cases are reversed and retired and why the appeals are so protracted.

In 2009 The American Law Institute (ALI), the author of the Model Penal Code withdrew the standard from the model penal code … in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.The reauthorization of the death penalty by the Supreme Court was predicated on this standard which the ALI has now withdrawn. The ALI legal consultants that evaluated how the template has fared since 1976 have declared it a failure.

At some point, the courts will have to confirm the ALI’s conclusion.


The death penalty has failed as a matter of law and social policy.
The death penalty is not compatible with central values of our constitution: justice and basic fairness. It is impossible to formulate workable procedural rules in harmony with substantive legal requirements of eliminating arbitrariness and discrimination while achieving fundamental fairness through individualized sentencing.

The mere possibility of prosecutorial misfeasance or malfeasance in a death penalty case or the possibility of executing the innocent together with evidence of discrimination, including geographic discrimination, protracted litigation that seems to turn on technicalities collectively damages the legitimacy of the law and the credibility of the legal system.

No combination of procedural rules, substantive regulations, death protocols and eventless executions can save the death penalty from the genealogy from which it derives its inherent barbarism, its humane deficiencies, its premeditated cruelty and its costly failures.

The death penalty is killing itself.

2968 words/ 25 minutes
February 26, 2010

Facts about the Death Penalty
(As of December, 2009)

35 states have the death penalty
15 do not
New Mexico and New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2009 and 2006.
1170-- Number of executions since resumption of executions in 1976
1999-- Stands as the year with the most executions—98
2006 – 53
Race of defendants: W-57%, B-34%, H-7%
Race of victims: W-79%, B-14%
Race of death row inmates: B-42%, W-45%
Exonerations through 2009 in 26 states—139
Since 1999, number of death sentences has dropped dramatically:
1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Sentences 284 235 167 169 153 140 138 121 115 111 (2008 is projected)
Kentucky Death Row 36 (includes one woman)
Gallup Poll: October 2008 Gallup Poll found overall support for death penalty was 64% (80% in 1994). Poll also revealed when respondents are given choice of life without parole as alternate sentencing option, more choose life without parole (48%) than death penalty (47%). (11-17-2008).
Number of Executions before 1976 424
Current Kentucky Death Row Population 36
Women on Death Row (Kentucky) 1
Southern states accounted for 95 percent of the executions in 2008. Texas accounted for 16 of 32 executions as of August 2009 and over 37 % of all executions in the U.S since 1977. Over 33% of the prisoners on Texas Death Row come from the county where Houston is located. In 2007 (the last year for which statistics are available), juries throughout the United State returned 115 death sentences. Over 60 % were in the South. A 2002 study found that 2/3rds of American counties have never imposed the death penalty since 1977. Only 3 % (92 out of 3,066) of the nation’s counties account for 50 percent of its death sentences in that 32 year period. When the U.S. resumed executions in 1977, only 16 nations had abolished the death penalty; the number has since grown to 135 (60 retain) (FL Bar 10-01-09—11). Five nations are responsible for +90% of the world’s executions: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China - and the United States.

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