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Tom’s Opinion on The Death Penalty

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

When I was growing up, the first real death penalty story I can remember, took place in the states of Nebraska and Wyoming. Between December 1, 1957 and January 29, 1958, nineteen-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril (pronounced Carole) Ann Fugate killed 11 people in Lincoln and Bennet, Nebraska and Douglas, Wyoming. Their youngest victim was 2 years old, the oldest 70. The exploits of the duo inspired no less than eight movies. Why am I bringing up this ancient history?

Idaho Execution

For only the second time in 17 years the state of Idaho carried out the death penalty with the lethal injection of Richard Leavitt, 53. Leavitt was convicted for the brutal slaying and mutilation of Danette Elg, 31 in 1985. Prosecutor’s said Leavitt repeatedly stabbed her with exceptional force, and then cut out her sexual organs. Leavitt always maintained his innocence, but none of his appeals swayed any of the judges to take the death penalty off the table.

Two things made both these crimes stand out in my mind. First, this execution in Idaho was the first where witnesses were allowed to view the preparation of the lethal injection. Strapping the victim (?) down, inserting the IV and the final execution. Usually a curtain if pulled back, only after all preparations have been made.

The second thing that ties these two crimes together is the length of time it took for this execution to take place. Leavitt committed his crime in 1984 and was convicted in 1985. He has been a ward of the state of Idaho for 27 years. No one can deny that everyone is entitled to every possible arrow in the legal quiver. However, we also have to keep in mind that there are also family members of the victim who are waiting for justice and some accountability for the crime. Twenty-seven years seems like a long time for justice to finally be meted out. Elg would be 58 today had she lived.

1958 vs. 2012

Exactly how long did it take for 19-year old Charles Starkweather to exhaust his appeals and to be executed in the Nebraska electric chair? Justice moved a little faster in 1958. Just seventeen months, after being convicted of only one of the eleven murders, Starkweather was put to death 152 days before his 21st birthday. Caril Ann Fugate was sentenced to 18 years in prison and was paroled in 1976.

It’s very hard to look at the death penalty as a deterrent for anything when we’re talking 27 years. Only family members are affected after that length of time. Starkweather’s trial and appeals took less time than John Edward’s recent trial.

Some Final Thoughts

Many people who’ve come in contact with the justice system sometimes leave it with a sour taste in their mouths. Each year the wheels of justice seem to turn just a little bit slower.

What’s my opinion of the death penalty? I think the death penalty is a deterrent — to anyone it’s been applied to. No executed criminal is a repeat offender. On the other hand, we do have proof positive, that innocent people have been convicted in court, and executed for crimes they did not commit. We also have proof positive that the guilty are often released on technicalities to re-offend. The bottom line — no system is perfect.

However, the odds of the innocent being unjustly charged and convicted, is slowly being reduced. Fingerprints changed things in the 30’s and 40’s. DNA testing is responsible for many innocent people being released from our prisons today. Interrogation techniques are improving. I believe that science and technology will continue to narrow the gap between the guilty and innocent. For the time being, I still prefer to live with the imperfections of our current justice system. One very important protection remains unchanged. Anyone charged with a crime, in the United States of America, is still innocent until proven guilty in a court of law by a judge and jury of their peers.

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