Try this quiz. What do the Unabomber, The Green River Killer, Jared Loughner, and The Olympic Park Bomber have in common, other than the fact that they killed numerous people? Each was offered a plea bargain of life without the possibility of parole by the prosecution, accepted the offer, and disappeared from public view. Those agreements saved the taxpayers millions of dollars in perpetual and virtually endless litigation costs; and perhaps most importantly, each settlement guaranteed the community’s safety by putting the killer in prison for the rest of his life. Are these examples too far from home? Then consider the case of Solomon Montgomery, who killed 16 year veteran police officer Gary Skerski in Philadelphia in 2006 and pled guilty for a life sentence offered by none other than Lynne Abraham, labeled “The Deadliest DA” in a famous media profile.
None of those results prompted an outcry. Yet, when current District Attorney Larry Krasner offered pleas of life without the possibility of parole to Ramone Williams and Carlton Hipps in the killing of officer Robert Wilson – pleas that would guarantee their incarceration for the rest of their lives while saving the taxpayers millions of dollars in endless and virtually perpetual litigation – the uproar was seismic. How dare Krasner not seek the death penalty?
The Fraternal Order of Police, egged on by ex-assistant district attorneys fired by Krasner, declared that “people were walking on the grave of Robert Wilson.” President John McNesbydeclared the plea offer “despicable.” Even former mayor Michael Nutter weighed in, decrying the “decision not to fully prosecute the 2 killers.” But before we decide whether guilty pleas to a lifetime of incarceration satisfy the definition of a full prosecution, we should consider some facts about life sentences and death sentences, because misinformation about both alternatives is rampant.
The bipartisan study on capital punishment in Pennsylvania, released on the same day as the guilty pleas for Hipps and Williams, addresses the public’s distorted sense of life sentences. In the study, a Rowan University professor notes that jurors believe such a sentence means release after 25 years, which she describes as “underestimating the reality.” The reality, of course, is that for the more than 5000 Pennsylvania inmates currently serving life sentences, there is no parole at 25 years or ever.
On the other hand, capital punishment in Pennsylvania is more an unreality. While life sentences actually mean what they say, death sentences in Pennsylvania have no connection to actual executions. Indeed, not only has the Commonwealth not executed a single person this century, but the last involuntary execution (someone who opposed the death sentence on appeal) was 56 years ago. The study did note a “practical reality,” however: “more than 97% of post-conviction reversals disposing of death sentences in Pennsylvania since 1978 have subsequently resulted in a sentence of life imprisonment or less.” For the non-lawyers out there, this means that virtually every death sentence is eventually overturned, requiring victims to be hauled back into court years after they believed the matter had ended, only to learn that the death sentence had become something different.
For taxpayers, capital punishment means all that and more. Much more, in fact. Some studies indicate that a death verdict is ten to twenty times more expensive than a life sentence; not a single study shows it to be cheaper. But once again people are badly misinformed by those pushing a pro-death penalty agenda, as 70% of the public believes the death penalty saves the taxpayers money.
The other side of the coin is the life sentence imposed pursuant to a guilty plea. Such pleas are almost impossible to reverse, and take up a morning of the court’s time rather than months of trials and years of appeals. Victims never have to relive the crime in a future courtroom, defendants disappear from public view, and taxpayers are saved millions of dollars.
Even with all of the misinformation in the public’s mind, support for the death penalty is declining. A 2015 poll indicated that the majority of Pennsylvanians preferred a life sentence to a death sentence for those convicted of murder. With the exception of New Hampshire, the rest of the northeast has ended capital punishment. And New Hampshire, whose legislature recently voted to abolish the death penalty only to have the bill vetoed by its governor, does not actually have a death row at all, as there is only one man under sentence of death there.
Given these unalterable facts, it is reasonable to wonder why there is such an outcry to seek a punishment that has not been carried out this century. The community is safe and the case is closed; and surely the money we’ve saved might be better spent on schools or streets or law enforcement. The death penalty is a dinosaur, and the sooner we recognize it the sooner we will see real criminal justice reform.