'In the many scientific studies done on the death penalty through the past decades, it is clear that it is not a deterrent to violent behavior' Kari Brandenburg
Regions of the country that do not have the death penalty have lower murder rates
Nebraska estimates it spent $14.6 million every year on the death penalty, yet it has not executed anyone since 1997
BY KARI BRANDENBURG
I get mad as hell when a police officer is killed in the line of duty, or a vulnerable child is killed, or when anyone else is robbed of their life in an act of violence. The offenders should never be allowed to walk our streets again, but the answer is not the death penalty.
We can’t let anger drive our discussions and actions. If we do, we will be further removed from real answers and solutions.
In the many scientific studies done on the death penalty through the past decades, it is clear that it is not a deterrent to violent behavior. I assure you the accused murderers of Officers Greg Benner, Daniel Webster and José Chavez and 10-year old Victoria Martens did not consider the law and its penalties when they acted.
Victoria was killed at a time when the death penalty was a hot topic and was being discussed on television stations and in newspapers throughout the state. Did it save her life? In fact, regions of the country that do not have the death penalty have lower murder rates. Further, law enforcement officers are more likely to be killed in the line of duty in the South, which accounts for a vast majority of the executions.
After nearly 20 years, the death penalty and its use have been declining. Thirty states allow the death penalty, but in four of those states, the governors have declared moratoriums on executions while they are in office. Other states are presently considering repealing it. Not only did executions drop in 2015, but the number of people sentenced to death also hit an historic low.
Several factors are at play. One is the expense. Nebraska estimates it spent $14.6 million every year on the death penalty, yet it has not executed anyone since 1997. Another is the fact that more than 150 individuals on death row have been exonerated. Our criminal justice system isn’t perfect, nor are witnesses, police officers, lawyers or forensic scientists.
As district attorney, I tried the last death penalty case in New Mexico: State v. Michael Paul Astorga. With the current rules allowing for two separate trials and juries, one to determine guilt or innocence and another to determine the sentence of life or death, a death penalty case is extremely labor intensive, complex and expensive.
There is always the very real possibility a defendant will be found not guilty or will be convicted of a lesser offense. That’s because jurors are opposed, or do not want to be a participant, to sending someone to their death. It is one thing to say you support the death penalty and another to be the one sitting in judgment.
As district attorney, the death penalty has always troubled me. It is a tremendous drain on limited resources; it could compromise a just verdict; and most New Mexico juries do not return a death verdict.
As an individual, I don’t believe it is the right thing to do. My 37 years in the criminal justice system tell me if we really want to take a bite out of crime and save precious lives, we need to build healthier communities.
Teaching parents to parent and providing support to help them is fundamental. Early childhood education is essential. We desperately need adequate resources to deal with addiction issues. Alcohol and drugs are part of most criminal behavior. Re-entry programs for those exiting our prisons have proven to be extremely successful at reducing recidivism. Mental health care and treatment is critical though unavailable to most in need. And we have to have jobs for those who need to and should be working. There is a definite relationship between poverty and violence.
I recall a talk I had with my 6-year-old child years ago. I was explaining to him my concerns about the death penalty, as he was enjoying a hot dog, poolside. He was dripping wet, towel wrapped over his shoulders, with a bit of mustard at the corner of his mouth. He listened intently. When I asked him what he thought his reply was, “Gosh, I thought we were the good guys.”
Reinstating the death penalty may make us feel better temporarily, but it isn’t the answer. It will distract us from the pressing problems that contribute to these horrors. There is no quick fix.
Let’s be the good guys and have the real discussions, seek real solutions.
Kari Brandenburg has been the Bernalillo County district attorney since 2001. She is not seeking re-election in November.