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The High Cost of Killing People


A ballot referendum to be decided Nov. 6 in California makes a case we have made many times on this page, and should resonate with the 33 states, including Nebraska, that still have the death penalty on their statute books.

Voters in California will decide whether to abolish the death penalty, based primarily on economic grounds, and substitute life in prison without possibility of parole.

While in the past many of the arguments against the death penalty have been based on moral grounds, and the possibility of executing an innocent person, this time the case is being made that cash-strapped California simply can’t afford the stratospheric cost of legally killing people.

According to proponents of the referendum, 13 people have been executed in California since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1978, at a total cost of $4 billion. Those costs include the long, drawn-out appeals process, that commonly goes on for 20 years before a convict ultimately meets his fate.

If that cost figure is accurate, it represents a mind-boggling $307,692,307 per execution since 1978 to maintain death row and the facilities necessary to execute prisoners, the legal cost of everyone involved in the long state appeals process, and the legal costs of everyone involved in the long federal appeals process.

At the current time, there are 725 people on California’s death row, the most in the nation.

Here in Nebraska, there are currently 11 inmates awaiting execution. The last execution took place 15 years ago, and there have been three since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Perhaps the most famous inmate executed was Charlie Starkwheather, whose murder spree in December 1957 and January 1958 resulted in his relatively speedy electrocution in June of 1959. The appeals process never goes that quickly these days, explaining much of the astronomical cost of executions.

Another notable execution in Nebraska was that of William Marion, who was hanged in 1887. His supposed victim turned up alive in 1891, and in 1987, 100 years after his execution, Marion was the lucky recipient of a pardon from the state. One might be tempted to say, “Oops.”

Even the process is problematic, as evidenced by the recent flap over acquiring the sodium thiopental needed for a lethal injection. The Swiss manufacturer does not sell it for the purposes of executing people, so state officials had to buy it through a middleman in India earlier this year.

It is uncertain how the vote will go in California, since the current death penalty was passed in 1978 by a voter referendum. It is clear, however, that the high cost of legally taking a human life is something that many taxpayers are recognizing as one expense they can clearly do without.

The scriptures say, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, sayith the Lord,” and we suspect that more and more Americans are willing to leave this particular form of vengeance in the hands of the Lord.

The rest of us can’t afford it.


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