Saturday, July 7, 2012


A letter I wrote to the editor of the Oregon State Bar Magazine.  We would love to hear your thoughts on this very compelling subject. 

Why Chance It?
I write this in response to the article about the death penalty debate in Oregon (June 2012). In the interest of full disclosure, I am against the death penalty. I do not believe a civilized society should be in the business of killing its citizens.

From a pragmatic perspective, having represented hundreds of criminal defendants, I do not believe the death penalty is a deterrent. If there is a legitimate study that shows otherwise, I have never seen it.

The bottom line is this: The death penalty is an inherently flawed system that unnecessarily costs the state of Oregon billions of dollars. And when was the last time Oregon executed someone? What comes with a death sentence is the constitutionally required appellate process. And that process is very, very expensive.

We pursue death penalty convictions knowing that we really never execute anyone; and we do so fully aware that the process that comes with a death penalty sentence is incredibly expensive. I once asked a prominent district attorney, “Why does your office pursue the death penalty when you know we don’t end up executing in Oregon?” His response: “Because death row is a miserable existence.” So, given such a mindset, wouldn’t it make more sense to give people true life sentences and simply impose the same prison conditions as those on death row?

Lastly, and most importantly, in recent years this country has witnessed hundreds of death row inmates exonerated for the crimes for which they were convicted. Sadly, many of those innocent individuals were exonerated after they were executed. So why would we ever chance it? How can you tell me that some unquantifiable benefit of the death penalty outweighs the fact that at times we get it wrong?


  1. You do have some point there. But this kind of topic is really serious in many points.
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  2. You have described every point in systematic manner !!

  3. You are absolutely correct in stating the death penalty is not a deterrent the way it stands. The way the entire judicial system stands however, is also quite obviously not a deterrent for criminal behaviour. Punishments for crimes have become something of a joke, at least in North America. Go to jail, you get housed in a clean, sanitary environment, fed regularly (on carefully, nutrionist planned diets), clothed (so what if your jumpsuit is pink), educated, socalized and just plain well cared for. Don't go to jail and you get to work at Walmart for minimum wage, buy bruised and almost rotting produce and the cheapest cuts of meat to feed your family, pray every month you can find the money to keep the ramshackle roof over your head and the heat and water on, have no hope of furthering your education, and between work, taking care of your family and trying to put together a few hours to sleep, no social life. The incentive to be a criminal is better than to not. Its a crazy world we have defined for ourselves. Lawyers get paid billions of dollars to make new rules to protect the guilty, and increase their comfort while incarcerated for a crime. No one spends any real money on fighting for the needs of the people trying to make a living honestly, without crime. What's possibly worse is that those people fighting to live an honest life are more often than not victims of crime. Its a cruel irony that the criminals get away with their behaviour and are rewarded by a stay in jail.

    So, that said, you are totally right that the death penalty is a waste of time and money. Under the circumstances we North Americans have carved out, that's a simple statement of fact. What's needed is drastic and significant change in our legal/justice system. Punishment needs to become a deterrent. The death penalty is not a deterrent now, because most, if not almost all, criminals know it will never happen. Even if they are sentenced to capital punishment, their appeals etc. will be in the courts for years and years before talk of actual getting dead even hits the table.

    I say pump up the volume. If I ruled the world, the first tenet of my legal system would be 'steal a car, lose a finger'. Simple, elegant, easy justice to mete out, and if not effective the first time caught, definitely would become more effective with repeated offences. Jail/prison need to stop being refuges that cater to their residents. They need to become penal colonies. People may say that our current penal system is effective because it focuses on rehabilitation. Well, rehabilitation works about as well as the threat of capital punishment.

    We need to make punishments much more severe if we are ever to have a chance of them working as a deterrent. I say build a system where the first time criminal has all kinds of resources thrown at him/her. Education, healthcare, job placement, follow up care once released from the penal institution. Give them everything they need to be successful. If they are found guilty a second time, do the same thing. Resource and support bomb. If they are found guilty a third time, kill them. Like my 8th grade teacher once told me, once is a mistake, twice is a habit. If after two attempts a person continues to choose a criminal lifestyle, then there really is no place in society for them anymore. Now that's a deterrent.