- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

On Feb. 15, 1933, a naturalized citizen named Giuseppe Zangara, in attempting to assassinate President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was giving a speech in the back of a car in Miami, shot five people, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Zangara promptly - within days - pleaded guity to four counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to 80 years in prison. When Mayor Cermak died 19 days after the shootings, on March 6, 1933, two days after Roosevelt’s inauguration (the date has since changed to Jan. 20), Zangara was promptly indicted for first-degree murder. Because he had intended to commit murder, it was irrelevant that his intended target was not the man he ultimately killed. Zangara pleaded guilty to the additional murder charge, and on March 20, 1933 - 33 days after the shooting and after spending only 10 days on Death Row, Zangara was executed.

Fast forward to Feb. 12, 2009. Danny Joe Bradley was executed in Alabama after serving 25 years on death row for the rape and strangulation of his 12-year-old stepdaughter on Jan. 24, 1983.

Even those who would say that Zangara’s conviction and execution (though conducted legally and with great transparancy) were precipitous would, we hope, concede that Bradley’s quarter-century delay was dawdling. Actually, it’s ludicrous that the pendulum has swung so far that death penalty appeals can drag on for 25 years or more. As a result, society has reached the exasperating situation where it is cheaper to incarcerate killers for their entire lives than to get a death penalty verdict and carry it out (or try to). Last year a major Maryland study stated “the average capital-eligible case resulting in a death sentence will cost approximately $3 million, $1.9 million more than a case where the death penalty was not sought,” and Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has literally marched in the street against the death penalty, cited that in an appearance before the Maryland Senate as a rationale for ending death sentences. The costs of a death penalty case, with all the heightened constitutional requirements, were weighed against figures that included the cost of lifelong imprisonment. According to one report, carrying out the death penalty can leave a state with a bill 10 times higher than for an inmate serving life imprisonment.

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This, of course, is one intention of death penalty foes, who will file motion after motion for years on end, and up to the end, challenging everything and anything; these lawyers are often paid by the states themselves. They may be succeeding in some states that are now looking at abolishing capital punishment largely because of budget shortfalls, not for more ethical reasons. “It is quite unusual that we’ve seen this blossoming of state legislative activity this year,” said Steve Hall, director of the anti-capital punishment group Standdown. “The issue of cost is definitely an issue that legislators are looking at because of the severe economic recession (having) a significant impact on many states,” he told Agence France-Presse. “The state legislators are looking at ways to cut the funding, to pull themselves out of the deficit, and the high cost of the death penalty is absolutely something that they are looking at.”

The alleged savings of forgoing the death penalty are hotly disputed by some experts. Regardless, justice should not be decided by a price tag. Nor should it be decided simply by the deterrent value to others (a matter of some dispute also) or by the fact that two-thirds of the public favor the death penalty. It is an appropriate penalty for first-degree murder and may be more merciful than lifetime incarceration and isolation. Somewhere between the extremes of Zangara and Bradley justice should be made both sure and swift, with short appeals and expert representation for capital defendants. States and the federal government should work together on this reform if they want to save money.

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