Death by caprice

The execution of Donald Beardslee by the people of California three weeks ago passed almost unnoticed. Apparently nobody had much sympathy for a guy who in 1981 had shot one woman and strangled and slashed another in retaliation for a drug deal gone bad. That’s understandable, but no execution should go unexamined, and a closer look at the Beardslee case leads to questions about California’s capital punishment process.

Why, for example, do we put one man to death while sentencing others guilty of no less heinous crimes to life in prison without possibility of parole? As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, there were two other, similar multiple murders in 1981. In one case, the murderer killed two people during a four-day PCP-fueled spree that also included rape, assault and robbery. In another, a man murdered his two bosses at the gas station where he worked, shooting them execution style. Both men went to prison for life.

Does it make sense that we execute some people and not others for what are essentially the same crimes? No, but in California judges cannot throw out a death penalty verdict on the grounds that similar crimes received a lesser penalty.

There are now 640 men and women on death row. Since voters reinstated the death penalty in 1978, the state has executed just 11 people. Beardslee was on death row for 24 years before being executed, and his case alone probably cost more than $1 million. The process is cumbersome and expensive, but speeding it up would inevitably increase the risk of executing defendants who are innocent or were convicted unfairly.

Californians like the death penalty. They keep adding new crimes to the list of "death-eligible" offenses—the number now stands at more than 30—as if somehow future murderers were paying attention to such things. But the truth is that the system is grossly impracticable and inherently unfair, as the execution of Donald Beardslee shows.