Rapists not at heart of death penalty issue

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 26, 2008

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court had a 5-4 decision that executions are not an appropriate punishment for criminals convicted of raping children.

The decision overturns a Louisiana law that allowed executions for criminals convicted of raping children under 12 years of age.

The narrow high court decision gives an indication of the complexity of the issue.

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The fact the victims do not die had some influence on the majority, but Justice Samuel Alito in his dissent indicated that child rapists are among the most detested criminals in the American court system.

“The harm that is caused to the victims and to society at large by the worst child rapists is grave,” Alito wrote. “It is the judgment of the Louisiana lawmakers and those in an increasing number of other states that these harms justify the death penalty.”

The points of this debate can go back and forth, but this debate misses the big picture when it comes to capital punishment in America. In short, it doesn’t work.

The justification for punishment for criminals is supposed to serve multiple purposes. It is to provide justice to the victims of crimes and society. It is also used as a way to correct behavior by criminals.

But most importantly, capital punishment is supposed to be a deterrent. It is the highest penalty a person can pay and it exists, at least in part, to deter human beings from killing one another.

And the simple truth is that it does not.

Comparing the U.S. murder rate with other countries is difficult because the statistical data is inconsistent. Some countries have different definitions for what constitutes a homicide.

But, according to statistics from the United Nations, the U.S. has one of the highest totals for yearly murders. Although population has to be taken into consideration, it doesn’t take statistics to know that the death penalty does not keep anyone from committing a murder.

That’s because the process to put someone to death simply takes too long. That’s not to say there should be a rush to execute a person, particularly with flaws in the justice system that sometimes bring into question the guilt of convicted murders.

But it’s hard for anyone to believe capital punishment is a deterrent when considering many murderers sit on death row for 20 years or more, often outliving some of the victims’ family members. In the news recently was an item about one of the inmates who killed Corrections Officer Robert Vallandingham during the Lucasville prison riot.

The Ohio Supreme Court recently had a decision regarding James Were, one of the “Lucasville Five.” Those five inmates received the death penalty for Vallandingham’s murder, but still sit on death row despite the fact the riot occurred in 1993.

A solution for the delays is not an easy proposition, but it should be worth noting that the U.S. constitution gives Congress the authority to create courts. It is worth considering whether it would be feasible for Congress to establish specific courts that would do nothing but address capital punishment cases and expedite the process.

But regardless, any issue regarding capital punishment — including the one Wednesday — should be put into context with the real question.

Is the death penalty a deterrent?

Rick Greene is the managing editor of The Ironton Tribune. He can be reached at (740) 532-1441, ext. 12, or by e-mail at rick.greene@irontontribune.com.