Friday, January 9, 2004

Jury Passes On Business Of Killing

US: This drives the death penalty crowd in the legislature nuts. Yet another jury - another 12 men and women, tried and true, who had all attested to their belief in the death penalty - has refused to join in the killing business.

One juror who spoke after the Dante Owens trial offered this assessment: "I felt that he deserved mercy that unfortunately the victims did not receive."

The 1998 crime was, in a word, horrifying. In a drug deal gone bad, Owens and two others shot and killed three people, hogtying them first, as Ten Crack Commandments played on the stereo. One woman lived, and she testified that Owens raped her and shot her in the mouth, leaving her paralyzed. And yet, the jurors thought Owens, 23, should live - although, it should be noted, spending every day of the rest of your life in prison is not exactly living well.

As David Lane, one of the attorneys in the case, put it, quoting another death penalty attorney: "Support for the death penalty is a mile wide and an inch thick." Lane says the death penalty is popular at cocktail parties or in state legislatures. But in jury rooms where the Supreme Court put the power, taking it away from judges - it's another matter altogether. In jury rooms, there's nothing theoretical about the flesh-and-blood human being whose life is in your hands.

Increasingly, jurors are resisting the ultimate punishment. In federal cases - and we know John Ashcroft is pushing for more death penalty trials - 15 of the last 16 juries have resisted. (Speaking of Ashcroft, we have to at least mention Lee Boyd Malvo here. The jury has moved to the penalty phase for Malvo's role in the sniper killings he committed as a 17-year-old. The United States is nearly alone in executing those who commit crimes while under the age of 18. Even China and Iran have resisted lately. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 18 such executions worldwide since 1998, 13 have been in the United States.)

Lane sees the death penalty as a moral issue, which is why he took the Owens case. But as Lane and I were talking, he put me onto the argument that may sway even hardheaded death penalty advocates. Put aside the touchy-feely aspects of the issue such as geographic and racial disparities, not to mention the 112 people who have been removed from death row with evidence of their innocence since 1973 - and get to something tangible: money. Although it sounds counterintuitive, it actually costs more to execute someone - with the many built-in appeals - than it does to keep him in prison. Some of you may know that.

But maybe you hadn't thought of this: Since the death penalty was reinstated in Colorado in the 1970s, one person has been executed. Only one. This is not what you would call getting a bang for your buck. And it's a big buck. An exact number is hard to come by, but the Public Defender's Office says it spent approximately $2 million in the past fiscal year on death penalty cases and estimates that the various district attorneys spent approximately $1.50 for every one of their dollars. That would put the total number at $5 million. And even that is low because those numbers include only the trial level.

But let's stick with $5 million. Maybe in some years, it's less. And, of course, there's inflation. But, however you do the math, it's a lot of millions over a lot of years - for one execution. You can save money, as the governor does, by cutting public-health programs. And who among us isn't proud of ranking last in the country in child immunization?

[? Some say there is danger in child immunization too and that is also just corporate greed by big pharma, perhaps another example would be better?]

Or you can save money by getting rid of the death penalty - a system that just doesn't work. It isn't that the legislature hasn't tried. Every time the legislature tries to create a more death penalty-friendly system, one court or another says the system actually has to be fair - with the taxpayer picking up the tab.

So why don't juries here respond as they do in, say, Texas or Oklahoma or North Carolina, which, among them, have accounted for two-thirds of 2003 executions? Maybe it's because, unlike one infamous Texas attorney, Colorado lawyers rarely nap in court. "I don't believe jurors are more bloodthirsty in Texas," Lane said. "In Colorado, we put resources into defending these cases. In Texas, they get the worst lawyers they can find and give them no resources. It's a sham proceeding."

Lane put his case to the jury for sparing Owens' life. It started with Owens' low IQ, which Lane says is borderline retarded. His mother, addicted to crack, drank while pregnant with him. Owens then grew up on gang-filled streets in Compton, Calif., and starting using drugs himself at age 9 - the same age he was shot at for the first time. By age 18, he said he knew 19 people who had been murdered. This was the life he lived before the horror he helped bring to Aurora. He grew up knowing nothing about the quality of mercy. But 12 men and women, tried and true, showed him that they did.

By Mike Kittwin, posted 9 January 04


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