Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Cost of Killing

Executions are too expensive, morally and economically.

By Max Maloney

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  It looks increasingly likely that a 39-year-old moratorium on the death penalty in Tennessee will end. Governor Sundquist stands ready to become the first governor since Buford Ellington to preside over an execution. But he will do so in our name, and we will thus bear some responsibility for the calculated killing of a human being.

All things considered, there has so far been remarkably little discussion of the death penalty -- and of its costliness, in more ways than one, to the people of Tennessee.

Of Tennessee's 16,324 state prisoners, slightly more than 4,000 of them are incarcerated for murder. Of these, 102 are on death row, and 32 received their sentence in Shelby County. This much can be said: Issues of fairness aside and from an economic standpoint alone, the attrition from 4,000 to 102 is beneficial to the taxpayers of Tennessee. Nationally the sentencing and imposition of the death penalty costs over $1 million per case more than the sentencing and imposition of life without parole.

A large part of the cost is borne by local municipalities, a special concern for Shelby County, which has been the site of 52 percent of Tennessee death sentences in the last decade.

Another cost of particular importance to the people of Tennessee is the price, admittedly less quantifiable, of the racial inequities evident in the implementation of the death penalty. Though African Americans make up 15.9 percent of the state's population, 32 percent of death row inmates are African American.

The historical record is even more startling. From 1916 to 1960, 68 percent of those executed in Tennessee were African American, as were 26 of the 29 Shelby County residents electrocuted by Tennessee.

Not only does the race of the defendant play a role, but the race of the victim has a significant impact as well. Of those sentenced to death since 1977, 75 percent were convicted of killing whites. The General Accounting Office, reviewing empirical studies, found that 82 percent of them clearly demonstrated that people who murder whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.

Those who would retain the death penalty argue that costs would decrease and fairness increase if more executions were carried out and if appeals were limited. This suggestion, however, runs afoul of the facts. Most of the expense of a death sentence is incurred during the initial trial, which suggests that there would be little gain in efficiency if the number of capital cases were increased, and minimal savings if the number of appeals were decreased.

More importantly, additional strain on the judicial system and a decrease in oversight of lower court decisions would, arguably, increase the probability that we would kill an innocent person. Nationwide, we have killed 25 people who have been posthumously proven innocent. In the last decade, 82 people have been freed from various "death rows" on proof of their innocence, six in 1999 alone.

The decision to execute our fellow citizens is not just Governor Sundquist's; it is ours. Refusing to take up the issue of the social, political, moral, and yes, even economic costs to us of the death penalty is an impermissible abdication of our responsibilities to each other and to our state.

We stand at the precipice. Let's look before we leap.


Max Maloney, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Memphis, is a representative of the Tennessee Coalition Against State Killing and a research fellow of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.)


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