On the Resumption of Federal Executions

On the Resumption of Federal Executions

Reflections by our intern, Heejae Jung. Heejae is a sophomore at Vassar and is with us for the fall 2020 semester.

In mid-July, the embers of fireworks were still ingrained in my memory from the celebration of
Independence day and reawakened by the occasional crackling from my neighbors (a new trend to deal with
quarantine boredom). I felt the familiar crinkle of the morning news from my outstretched fingers. The Wall
Street Journal and I had been good breakfast companions since January of 2020–part of my New Year’s
resolution to be more well-read and on top of current events. My first-year advisor at college had told me
once that, “Economics makes the world go round,” and I could now say the same for the news.

Yet unlike any other Sunday, I did not fill my mind with the solace of eggs in American kitchens,
missed social cues from face masks, North Korean defectors discussing the officers’ corruption, or Susan B.
Anthony’s defiance against America’s unrepresentative usage of the pronoun “he” in the law when it came to
voting. That day, one headline seared past all the monthly clutter: “U.S. Executes Second Federal Inmate This
Week After a 17-Year Hiatus.” In the story of Wesley Ira Purkey’s execution for the rape, murder, and
dismemberment of a sixteen-year-old girl despite his impaired rationality as to the reasoning behind his
punishment, it cast a cloud of doubt over the constitutionality of such a permanent and crude judicial
reprimand. The only word that came to mind upon finishing the article was “rage,” one experienced by both
parties. The bereaved victim’s father and the tormented inmate were both severely hurt and wronged: one
enraged by grief for the heinous murder of his daughter and the other tormented by his condemnable
actions, in many ways a byproduct of his childhood abuse and mental illnesses. The back-and-forth dissent
among Supreme Court justices that ultimately resulted in the ending of Purkey’s life did not do either side
any favor.

Cloaked in modern-day euphemisms–“as painless and quick a death as possible”–and drenched in
pathos language–“a danger and harm to society that wastes government and citizens’ taxes”–the defense for
the death penalty has gaping holes no one can fill. I can see no way around the egregious breach of justice
that ending a person’s life entails. Opposing the death penalty does not excuse the criminal, it does not
overlook the victim’s suffering, and it certainly does not misuse the law. It simply acknowledges that one
does not have to endorse killing to rightfully punish inexcusable crimes. I admit to being largely ignorant of
these alternative methods and any historical context that led to the maintenance of this policy. But the tone
of vengeance that accompanies those who talk of a “rightful killing” reflects the lack of mercy and basic
humaneness, all of which do not promote anyone’s well-being. Two murders never make a right. This “eye
for an eye” approach to delivering punishment must come to an end.

Reading this article forced me to come face-to-face with the reality that capital punishment is still legal
and still practiced in parts of the world. It made me question the American legal system and the rightfulness
of its conduct. At the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is “air, food, water, warmth and rest”–who are
we, who is anyone, to deny others such primitive needs? The moment we say another person’s life can rest in
the hands of others, regardless of how harmful that person is, we are endorsing an unethical hierarchy that
gives permission to act upon the idea that certain lives are more important than others. When I celebrate the
Fourth of July, I celebrate America’s independence and its citizens’ livelihood. The bright fireworks grow dull
at the threat of such a foundational basis in this country.

PA Auditor General Cites Costly Death Penalty in Criminal Justice Report

June 9, 2020


Contact: Kathleen Lucas, klucas@padp.org, 717-236-4840

Pa. Auditor General’s Criminal Justice Report Cites Costly Death Penalty


June 9, 2020 York, PA — Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a report this morning  indicating that the state’s death penalty has cost taxpayers close to $1.06 billion between 1978 and 2018. Of that amount, half was spent on persons later removed from death row because their sentences or convictions were overturned.

The report shows during that same 40-year period the state released six innocent men from death row and executed three men who had given up their rights to appeal. The cost of seeking a sentence of death after a jury returned a different sentence was $277 million, in Pennsylvania, nearly 24 percent of the total. In other states, including Maryland, Ohio, Kansas, Nebraska, and California, only about one-fourth of individual cost studies have consistently found that the costs of capital punishment are many times higher than seeking an alternative sentence.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Linell Patterson, whose father and stepmother were murdered in Lancaster County, said, “The death penalty is exponentially more expensive than imprisonment for life, and it has been proven that the current system does not deter any more murders than locking up prisoners for life.”

In a bipartisan push to end capital punishment in the state, both the Pennsylvania House and Senate have introduced bills. The AG’s Special Report on Criminal Justice includes recommendations for a series of reforms to improve lives and safety of commonwealth residents.

The death penalty represents our criminal justice system at its worst, according to Ben Waxman, former Director of Communications for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. “It wastes precious resources while doing nothing to promote public safety. We should abolish capital punishment and invest the massive savings back into our most vulnerable communities,” said Waxman.

Widener School of Law Professor Akin Adepoju said, “This report establishes that our death penalty system has been a failure. It is applied more often to people of color and those with mental disabilities, has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars that could instead go to crime victims and crime prevention measures such as mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment, and education-related and community-based programs.

Adepoju believes the death penalty has prevented us from being tough on crime and the causes of crime. He added, “The only thing it does well is waste money, prolong the agony of the victims’ families, and increase the risk of executing an innocent person.”