Making sense of death as penalty
As the Nevada Supreme Court hears the gruesome arguments this week about how the state can best kill convicted murderer Scott Dozier, it’s worth reexamining why Nevada continues to insist on executions for capital crimes instead of using the more sensible punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole for those society has judged unworthy of life.
Because pharmaceutical manufacturers have now prohibited the more common drugs for this purpose, the Dozier appeal involves the use of an experimental drug cocktail as the means of execution. It's worth noting that Dozier, like 11 of the 12 people executed in Nevada since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, is a “volunteer” in that he has chosen to give up his appeals in favor of a state-sponsored death. But since Nevada no longer has access to the drugs needed to carry out his execution, the state is attempting to use an unproven combination of drugs, some of which have already expired and cannot be repurchased, spending enormous amounts of time and money to litigate and possibly carry out an execution that will not make us any safer. What a mess.
The death penalty is in decline around the country and for good reason. New Hampshire is the latest state to vote for repeal, with a bill passed by both legislative bodies now headed to the governor's desk to replace the death penalty with life without parole. The bill passed just short of a two-thirds majority, giving Governor Chris Sununu the ability to veto the measure, which he has vowed to do, even though it reflects the growing sentiment of voters who are tired of this costly and ineffective punishment.
Republicans have led the effort to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire, arguing that the state doesn't have the millions of dollars it needs to fund the legal costs associated with the death penalty or build an execution chamber.
Polls consistently show that support for the death penalty is decreasing and is now at its lowest level since 1972. If people are asked whether they support the alternative of life without parole, support decreases even more, especially if the sentence also includes a restitution requirement. Most Americans have evolved beyond the need for an “eye for an eye,” realizing an enlightened society can separate dangerous and violent criminals from society without killing them.
The voluntary deaths sought by death row inmates is likened by many to assisted suicide. According to Nevada lawyer Scott Coffee in an interview with the Marshall Project, “We don't kill them in Nevada unless they agree to it. What you've got with Dozier is state-assisted suicide.”
In the Dozier case, it was revealed during the mitigation phase that as a child he was sexually abused by teenagers in his neighborhood, with one psychologist diagnosing him with “elements of antisocial personality disorder with narcissistic traits.” According to the Marshall Project, there are many suicides in his family history, including a grandfather.
The Nevada Legislature should follow the lead of New Hampshire and take up the death penalty in the 2019 session and have the serious bipartisan conversation our state deserves about this costly and ineffective practice. Instead of spending so much money pursuing death penalty sentences, we could redirect these resources into mental health care and other preventive mechanisms to decrease crime and strengthen our communities. And we should decline to participate in the suicidal wishes of heinous criminals.
Dozier himself accurately summed up the insanity of trying to implement the death penalty in these conflicted times when he told the Marshall Project, “They spent millions of dollars giving me a death sentence, and then millions of dollars not killing me. It doesn't make any fucking sense.”