An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Today, November 10, 2009, the Northern Virginia Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, is scheduled for execution by lethal injection for the morbid, malicious murders he committed in the Northern Virginia area in 2002. No one disputes that he committed serious, devastating crimes that affected many innocent families. But legally, does the death penalty work? Does it truly have the effect of deterrence? Is it more expensive than what it is worth?
Feelings toward capital punishment have varied over time. Among democratic nations, few now impose it. In the United States, 38 states have death penalty laws while 12 have rejected the ultimate punishment in favor of other strong sentences, such as life without parole. Pennsylvania has the fourth largest population of death-row inmates in the country, after California, Texas and Florida. Here in Pennsylvania, capital juries are not required to be instructed about the option of imposing life without parole.
It costs far more to sentence an inmate to death than it does to impose a life without parole sentence. Specifically, it costs $1.9 million dollars more to execute a person than it does to give him life without parole. Capital defendants receive due process guarantees that inevitably increase the expense of a trial. These constitutional safeguards exceed the rights given to non-capital defendants because capital punishment is considered unique due to its severity and finality. They also make the process more complicated-and more costly.
Perhaps executing individuals make the victims and their families feel “whole,” although it is hard to believe that any kind of retribution can make a family whole after losses such as at the hands of the sniper.