We wouldn’t grieve for him if Joseph Duncan were put to death, but the system that would carry out the execution needs a healthy injection of reason.
Duncan has admitted killing three members of the Groene family and abducting two children to satisfy depraved sexual cravings. But because federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, the sentence itself will be under scrutiny – and for good reason.
Since Congress reinstituted the federal death penalty in 1988, a grand total of three people have been executed. There’s no rational pattern for why they were killed and others spared.
A total of 2,512 people have been eligible for federal capital cases. Prosecutors have sought the death penalty 431 times. Fifty-nine of those people have been sentenced to death.
The reasons for sparing someone’s life are varied: quality of defense counsel, jurisdiction (federal courts across the South seek the death penalty more frequently) and which presidential administration the crime occurred under.
What is missing is a connection between the heinous nature of the crimes and the possibility of death. The deterrent effect of capital punishment has long been debunked.
Not only are such prosecutions devoid of rational justifications, they are a lot more expensive. In federal cases, death penalty prosecutions cost about four times more to pursue than life without the possibility of parole. The average case costs $365,000 and that doesn’t include non-attorney costs, such as investigations and expert witnesses.
That price tag also doesn’t include the cost of defense lawyers, which is typically borne by taxpayers. Then there are the lengthy appeals.
If Duncan hadn’t pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping charges in Kootenai County, it would have cost an estimated $400,000 for his defense. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. So, the only point in continuing to prosecute him is to determine whether he lives or dies. And the only justification left is catharsis.
There’s no denying the emotional appeal of executing someone like Duncan, but that isn’t enough to justify an arbitrary system that has been exposed as inconsistent, expensive and rife with the potential of killing an innocent person. Numerous people have walked off death rows after being exonerated. In many of those cases, the zeal or pressure for revenge had masked police and prosecutorial errors and allowed the real killers to remain free.
It’s over for Duncan. He will never be a free man. Taking on the added burden of killing him isn’t worth it.