The Workings of Capital Punishment

Al Jacobs

As usual, the headline is chosen to attract attention: “Jurors weigh killer’s fate.” The following line summarizes the article: “They can recommend death penalty for Steven Gordon.” His offense: convicted of murdering four prostitutes in 2013 and 2014 and disposing of their bodies in an Anaheim trash bin.

Although particularly bizarre, Gordon’s crimes merely exemplify the sort of acts regularly committed by deranged persons. Under California law, jurors can recommend the death penalty or life in prison, with the judge making the final decision. To date there’s no verdict in this case.

To get a more complete picture of how these sordid affairs play out over time, we’ll review the mass shooting at a Seal Beach, Calif., hair salon on Oct. 12, 2011, claiming the lives of eight victims. The perpetrator, Scott Evans Dekraai, involved in a custody battle with his ex-wife, simply walked into the salon where she worked and began shooting everyone in sight. His arraignment took place on November 29, 2011, where he entered a plea of not guilty.

After several postponements, trial occurred March 24, 2014, where Delraai pleaded guilty. No sentencing is as yet announced while the parties continue to haggle over procedural details of one sort or another.

These of you who believe these miscarriages of justice are restricted to out-of-the-way localities with degenerate legal systems should be aware travesties of these sorts are standard occurrences reflecting this nation’s judicial fabric. At the highest levels of U.S. military law, the most egregious offenses are permitted to remain unresolved for extended periods.

One most distressing event is the case of an army Medical Corps psychiatrist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who, in a shooting rampage on Nov. 5, 2009, at Fort Hood, Texas, killed 13 persons, and wounded more than 30 others. Although convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to death, he is presently incarcerated at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, awaiting execution while his case is endlessly reviewed by appellate courts.

Thus far we’ve directed our attention to situations where the decision to either award or rescind a death penalty sentence drags on for a half-dozen years, more or less. However, the delays do not begin in earnest until after the death sentence is formalized and the convicted felon is assigned to a holding cell on what is known as “death row.” We now begin counting the time until an execution, not in years, but in decades. It’s customary in many jurisdictions a quarter century or more will elapse before the sentence is carried out—if at all.

You may attribute the quagmire to the desire to avoid correctable errors, to a shortage of qualified attorneys to adequately represent the accused or for various other procedural reasons. But, of course, if you prefer to pinpoint the real justification, it’s that there’s an influential and politically active portion of the public believing capital punishment to be unwarranted under any circumstances. Accordingly, they’ve managed to manipulate the legal system in ways to tie the court into procedural knots whenever a capital punishment sentence appears to be nearing an execution.

To give you an idea of the actions the anti-capital punishment advocates are capable of, the recently enacted California Initiative 66, wherein voters approved a speed up of the death penalty, was just put on hold by the State Supreme Court while they consider a lawsuit challenging the measure. The provisions of the new law included, among other measures, setting a five-year deadline for appeals to be heard.

Currently, it normally takes that long merely for an attorney to be assigned to a case. Thereafter, numerous successive appeals will be filed, each citing vague objections, while the clock continues to run. It’s not unusual for this procedure to continue for 20 years or more.

At this point it’s reasonable to ask whether any useful purpose is served by including capital punishment as a possible penalty under any circumstances. One factor to take into consideration is whether the relationship of a crime to its punishment becomes so uncertain or is delayed for so long the two events become unrelated. This is how matters are now in many jurisdictions throughout the nation.

A second consideration relates to cost. It can be argued if a procedure becomes unreasonably expensive, it deserves to be modified or ended. In this case you might note cases without the death penalty cost $740,000, while cases where the death penalty is sought cost $1.26 million. Furthermore, maintaining each death row prisoner costs taxpayers $90,000 more per year than a prisoner in the general population. These are numbers to be factored into the mix, for if inordinate costs are incurred for a penalty which is ineffectively invoked, it deserves to end.

As you might tell, I’ve long been a proponent of capital punishment for those persons deserving it. I’ve never understood how society is benefitted by providing lifetime room and board to prisoners who must never be released? And not only is such incarceration senseless for society, but I question whether it’s fundamentally humane to lock up a person for life. It seems confining a prisoner to a cell, allowing only minimal contact with other humans and offering no respite to a life behind bars, is far more diabolical than a quick and relatively painless death.

If there’s any justification for our present system of perpetual limbo, it’s possibly because it provides employment for a lot of people. The list includes prison officials and guards, attorneys to handle the continual death penalty appeals, physicians and medical staff, food service providers to feed the confinees, psychiatrists and psychologists to ensure mental oversight for those permanently incarcerated, and finally it provides a source of revenue for those who operate non-profit foundations which continuously lobby for and against capital punishment, as well as innumerable hangers-on, who merely feed off the uncertainty.

I’ll now repeat what I’ve previously stated on more than one occasion. The death penalty must either stay or go. It cannot continue to remain as an uncertain possibility subject to the whims of whoever exercises control in any particular circumstance. If it stays, its execution must mimic the method employed by the 19th century Judge Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge,” who, when he declared the accused “be hanged by the neck until dead,” was, in fact, promptly hanged by the neck until dead. However, if society is no longer capable of such forcefulness, then capital punishment deserves to end. It’s better we base our policies on reality rather than contrived illusion.

Let me conclude with a final confession. Despite my fundamental approval of capital punishment, I can’t ignore the practicalities I’ve just described in detail. It’s for this reason that on Initiative Measure Proposition 62, Repeal of the Death Penalty, appearing on our California ballot in the recent election, I reluctantly voted in favor of repeal.

I’m truly convinced, with the political forces at work in my state, the system can never be administered in an effective manner. There’s no point in perpetuating a program which serves no beneficial purpose.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, distributes a monthly newsletter in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. You may view it on <>



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