Death row futility


Thomas Francis Edwards died a week ago Saturday of natural causes at age 65. That may not sound strange until you consider that Edwards, the convicted killer of a 12-year-old Orange County girl, had been on death row for 22 years.

That’s right. Two decades later, the state of California still hadn’t carried out a sentence imposed in the mid-1980s. And there’s nothing unusual about that. Of the state’s 680 death row inmates, 67 have been waiting to die for 25 years or more; nearly 300 have waited 15 years or more.

Today, a death row inmate is more likely to die of old age than to be put to death by the state. Since 1978, when California reinstated capital punishment, 43 have died of natural causes, five more of “other causes,” 16 by suicide -- and 14 have been executed, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.


Few would disagree that something here is broken. But broken how? Death penalty supporters see those numbers as incontrovertible evidence that inmates and their liberal allies have gamed the system, manipulating it through delays and appeals and stays and other gimmicks to stave off justice indefinitely.

We see it differently. This page has steadfastly opposed the death penalty. We question the morality of state-sponsored killing. We think capital punishment strikes disproportionately at disadvantaged groups, and capriciously at others. We doubt its deterrent effect as well.

And those duration-of-stay numbers merely strengthen our opposition. We find it shocking and depressing that California keeps hundreds of people locked up for decades awaiting execution at an estimated additional cost of $63.3 million per year (over and above the normal cost of incarceration) when it could save more than 90% of that by scrapping the system entirely and replacing it with life imprisonment without parole.

That was the conclusion reached by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice last year. It reported, among other things, that seeking the death penalty adds about $500,000 to the cost of a murder trial. And confinement on death row adds $90,000 per inmate each year to the normal cost of incarceration, state corrections officials have said. Multiply that last number by 680 people and then by 15 or 20 years, and, as Sen. Everett Dirksen once said, pretty soon you’re talking real money.

California has more death row inmates than any other state, and 20 new ones arrive each year, even though executions have stopped since 2006 while courts examine the legality of the state’s lethal- injection protocols.

Inefficiency and costliness are obviously only a small part of what’s wrong with the death penalty. But as the commission noted, they create cynicism and disrespect for the rule of law, and increase the emotional trauma of victims’ families. Let’s end this brutal, anachronistic practice.