Eppler ’13: Chafee ’75 correct to oppose death penalty

Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 and the state of Rhode Island are currently engaged in a fierce legal battle with the federal government over the fate of Jason Wayne Pleau, a man accused of bank robbery and murder. Rhode Island rejected a request to surrender Pleau for prosecution on federal charges because of the federal government’s plans to seek the death penalty in Pleau’s case. Rhode Island has not imposed the death penalty since 1852, and, in the words of Chafee, it is a “penalty consciously rejected by the state of Rhode Island, even for those guilty of the most heinous crimes.” The citizens of Rhode Island have good reason to reject the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including that the sentence is racially discriminatory, causes unacceptable risk of executing an innocent person and is inordinately expensive.

Racial bias has a pernicious influence on the administration of the death penalty. Countless studies have demonstrated that, across the country, race has an impact on death sentencing decisions. The death penalty has links to the worst aspects of our country’s sordid history of racial bigotry. In 2005, researchers at Ohio State found a relationship between a state’s death sentencing patterns and its lynching history. The death penalty also demonstrates racial bias in areas less typically associated with racial violence. Between 1989 and 1993, black defendants in Philadelphia were four times more likely to receive the death penalty than similar white defendants. Racial bias continues to be a factor today. In September 2011, the Supreme Court temporarily stayed the execution of Duane Buck, an African-American man whose race was cited by witnesses and prosecutors as a factor that increased his “future danger to society” during his 1997 trial.

Despite clear evidence that racial bias influences death penalty sentencing decisions, legislatures and courts have failed to address the problem. In 1987’s McCleskey v. Kemp decision, the Supreme Court held that evidence of racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty did not constitute a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Only one state — North Carolina — has passed legislation addressing racial bias in the imposition of the death penalty. Given the inaction of policymakers, a color-blind criminal justice system is impossible in the face of the death penalty. Abolition is the only solution.

The death penalty’s racially discriminatory impact is reason enough to oppose it, but the continued use of the death penalty risks the unimaginable horror of executing an innocent person. We have reason to fear the possibility. Since 1973, 140 death row inmates have been exonerated and released from prison. The celebrated cases of individuals such as Cameron Todd Willingham and Troy Davis raise grave concern that the unimaginable possibility of executing an innocent person has, in fact, been a reality. The heroic work of organizations such as the Innocence Project has saved hundreds of lives, but the cases of Willingham, Davis and others indicate that wrongful conviction and execution is a very real possibility.

While some states have taken admirable steps to prevent wrongful convictions, such as reducing barriers to DNA testing, requiring the recording of police interrogations to prevent coerced confessions and mandating compensation for the exonerated, wrongful convictions continue. This year has already seen the exoneration of Joe D’Ambrosio in Ohio, and history suggests that the number will grow. The possibility of wrongful convictions demonstrates that the criminal justice system is entirely too fallible to be entrusted with the power to kill.

The American death penalty is an extraordinarily expensive enterprise. According to a report prepared for the Judicial Conference of the United States, the median cost of trying a federal death penalty case such as Pleau’s is approximately 10 times greater than the cost of trying a similar non-death penalty case.

This cost disparity at the trial level is staggering, but it is only the beginning. Following a conviction and death sentence, state and federal law correctly offers opportunities for extensive post-conviction review of death sentences. The painstaking legal work associated with post-conviction review and the cost of maintaining a super-maximum security death row come with a high price tag. In 2011, federal judge Arthur Alarcon released the results of his study of California’s death penalty. Between California’s reinstatement of the death penalty in 1978 and 2011, California spent $4 billion on the death penalty and associated costs, which resulted in 13 executions. In other words, California spent $308 million per execution, with no identifiable return on such a large investment. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars with no identifiable return is the epitome of a failed policy.

Wasting taxpayer money may not seem as morally problematic as the possibility of executing an innocent person or involving insidious racial discrimination in the decision to take someone’s life. But in a time of austerity, every dollar that is spent on state-sponsored killing is a dollar taken from educating children or feeding the hungry. The death penalty money pit is indefensible, from both a policy perspective and a moral perspective.

Rhode Island’s decision to reject the federal government’s request raises a number of complicated legal issues related to federalism. There are no easy answers to these questions, but given the death penalty’s flaws, the substantive argument behind Rhode Island’s decision — that the American death penalty is an abhorrent punishment that should be forbidden in all cases — should be uncontroversial.



Ian Eppler ’13 is a former intern in the post-conviction litigation program of the Texas Defender Service. He may be contacted at

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