Did you know that even if proof surfaces that a condemned inmate is innocent, the Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that he doesn’t necessarily deserve a new trial? Seriously. I didn’t make that up. And did you know that as of 2003, 115 countries had abolished the death penalty, leaving, among the major countries, China, Iran, and … us, still putting people to death.
Missouri, according to Sister Rose Rita Huelsmann, who spoke at West County Dems last week, ranks fourth in the nation for the number of executions. It’s nice to be near the top of the heap for a change, but if we’re going to be fourth in the nation, why can’t we be fourth in something like spending on education? Or fourth in the number of windmills we’ve put up? Or even fourth in the number of root beers consumed? Why, why, if we’re going to be near the top of a list, does it have to be for the number of lethal injections we dispense?
At least our Supreme Court has some sane people on it. They just postponed, for at least thirty days, the first execution Missouri has had scheduled in more than three years. That’s especially appropriate since the condemned man, Dennis Skillicorn, didn’t kill anyone.
He was half a mile away when one of his buddies killed Richard Drummond, a man who had stopped to give aid to the two of them and another man when the trio had car trouble. The actual shooter, Allen Nicklasson, has sworn from the beginning that Skillicorn had no knowledge that he (Nicklasson) was going to shoot Drummond. But the prosecutor painted Skillicorn as the ringleader.
A Post-Dispatch editorial on Thursday explained several reasons why Skillicorn should not receive the ultimate punishment, and the fact that he didn’t kill anyone was only one of them:
Just as important – and perhaps more so – is that since he’s been in prison, Skillicorn has been an exemplary citizen, a rare moderating influence in a place – as one inmate put it – “full of vampires.”
If the fact Skillicorn had very little to do with the actual murder isn’t enough to convince Gov. Blunt to commute his sentence, perhaps his record as a model prisoner will. The Supreme Court’s action should help him consider that record more completely. Skillicorn’s lawyers had been denied access to prison staff and inmates as part of their efforts to draw up a clemency petition. On Wednesday, the court said this amounted to “obstruction of clemency advocacy.”
Skillicorn’s lawyers now have one month to conduct interviews on a voluntary basis with the people who know Skillicorn best. It’s in the best interest of the Department of Corrections to cooperate.
As Neal Turnbrough, a former guard at the Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Point, put it: “You’d like to have a whole prison of Dennises; it makes the job easier.”
Among the letters sent to Gov. Blunt on behalf of Skillicorn’s petition for clemency is one from a fellow death row inmate who wrote, “You got a lot of love in you, my brother. And as I sit here knocking on heaven’s door, I will go forth and take with me your strength and honor and total compassion, whether I go forth in this life or the next.”
The letter was written by Marlin Gray, executed by the state of Missouri on Oct. 26, 2005.
Skillicorn is a perfect icon to represent why the death penalty should not be applied. Admittedly, though, not everyone on death row would make such a convincing case against it. Some of them are psychopaths who committed horrible crimes and who might not feel remorse. But the arguments against the death penalty hold water even in the case of heinous murderers.
Just to be pragmatic about it, consider the expense. Why should someone who has already cost another person his life now cost the state of Missouri two million dollars? Because that’s what it ends up costing to try someone on a capital crime. Some counties have been forced into bankruptcy over the expense.
And once he’s convicted, the expense continues because the average stay on death row is 17.5 years, and keeping a man there costs almost three times as much as just keeping him in prison. It costs $34 a day to keep someone in prison and $90 a day to keep someone on death row.
Ah, but worth every penny, some would say, to deter other would-be murderers. We must set an example. If only it worked that way. But no, sadly, most murderers aren’t thinking consequences when they do the deed.
Consider, for example, that 13 states don’t have any death penalty, and that 10 of those 13 states have homicide rates below the national average. The South, on the other hand, has the highest murder rate–and 80 percent of the executions. Death penalty advocates need to tell those Southern killers to stop messing up their statistical argument in favor of the death penalty.
“Pragmatism be damned,” say some. “I believe in an eye for an eye.” That notion of justice would seem more just if the death penalty weren’t so often a case of a “black” eye for an eye. The death sentence is too often reserved for black men. Missouri currently has 47 men on death row: 25 of them white and 22 of them black. Considering that the black population is about 12 percent, those numbers are skewed, to say the least. Nor can anyone weasel out from under these stark numbers by saying that blacks commit far more murders than whites. A recent study says that there’s a different explanation for the 25 white/22 black phenomenon:
Two of the country’s foremost researchers on race and capital punishment, law professor David Baldus and statistician George Woodworth, along with colleagues in Philadelphia, have conducted a careful analysis of race and the death penalty in Philadelphia which reveals that the odds of receiving a death sentence are nearly four times (3.9) higher if the defendant is black.
The other group overrepresented on death row is poor people. Turns out that 80 percent of those sentenced to death were too poor to afford their own lawyer.
Taking all these arguments against the death penalty into consideration, a group called Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty is urging the state to form a commission to make a three year study of whether the death penalty is effective public policy. MADP suggests a moratorium on executions while the commission studies the subject. Last year, one third of the members of the House co-sponsored a bill to create the commission. The bill did not quite make it, but MADP will push for it again next year. Although a majority of Mssourians support the death penalty, they’re not adamant about it. Sixty percent of them would support a moratorium while the subject is being studied.
Sounds fair to me.