The ultimate punishment

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As the Nevada Legislature debated the death penalty last week, I reflected on a painful tragedy in my own family 15 years ago, a story all too familiar in our violent, self-absorbed world. My two-year-old great niece was the victim of a horrific case of child abuse by a bad boyfriend. Her mother inexplicably stood by and allowed his harsh discipline to kill her daughter.

My niece received a long prison sentence for her complicity in the crime, which was death penalty eligible. Her boyfriend who inflicted the fatal injuries received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 20 years.

Although our family would have preferred no possibility of parole, with the distance of time, the sentence makes sense. The murderer was a young man in his 20s, with no significant criminal history. His immature and violent behavior took the life of an innocent child, a crime surely deserving of decades of punishment, but killing him in return would have served no purpose. That’s what I thought 15 years ago, and I continue to believe it to be true.

Today, 82 people reside on Nevada’s death row, awaiting execution by a state that has failed to carry out the death penalty for the last 11 years. Two lawyers, Assemblyman James Ohrenschall and Senator Tick Segerblom, are sponsoring Assembly Bill 237 to ban capital punishment in Nevada. If the bill is approved, the sentences of inmates currently on death row would be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Despite the lack of executions in more than a decade, Governor Sandoval and the 2015 Legislature approved $860,000 to remodel the state’s death chamber, knowing that executions can’t occur since the drugs needed to administer the lethal injection can no longer be purchased. During the debate last session, someone quipped that the new chamber would be the most expensive storage closet in Nevada’s history.

Nineteen states have already eliminated the death penalty, and four more have a moratorium in place. But violent crime has not risen dramatically in response to the abolishment of the death penalty in those states. In fact, in some of the states, violent crime has actually decreased. Deterrence is a poor argument for the death penalty since clearly most murderers don’t do a cost-benefit analysis before committing their crimes.

Last week’s legislative hearing was contentious and emotional, with family members tearfully testifying on both sides of the issue. It was clear that many legislators already had their minds made up in support of the death penalty as they angrily disagreed with witnesses, presenting their own instant Google searches of studies to refute them. Some were offended by the argument that we should eliminate the death penalty because it is ineffective and costs too much, but they didn’t really want to talk about the moral arguments either.

For me, eliminating the death penalty is not about forgiveness and redemption. I’m doubtful I will ever forgive my great niece’s murderer for taking her life or my niece for her complicity. I can’t forgive the killer’s family for raising such a violent, immoral man or myself for not recognizing the depth of his depravity in time to save her. But I do think Washoe County’s District Attorney Chris Hicks was right when he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that “you cannot put a price on a victim’s life and a price on justice,” although I take a different meaning from his statement than he probably intended.

We all know executing a murderer won’t bring a victim back to life. It won’t even provide closure for many families who may be unforgiving, but do not require eye-for-an-eye vengeance. Justice has no price, but it doesn’t demand death.