A recent statistical trend suggests that both the legal system and the American public are souring on the death penalty. Though Maine has not had the death penalty since 1885, our criminal justice system should weigh the factors leading away from the death penalty, and consider a more firm life sentence.
Thirty-seven states have the death penalty, though two have effectively ended it by not having a court-approved method. Even if the number of jurisdictions allowing the death penalty does not change, fewer courts are doling out the sentence. Last year, there were fewer death penalties imposed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated execution in 1976. Part of the reason is that prosecutors have sought the penalty less often, but judges and juries have handed down the penalty less often as well.
After being approved by the high court, three were executed in the 1970s, 117 in the 1980s and 518 in the 1990s. The death sentence was embraced by many states in the 1990s as a manifestation of the era’s “get tough on crime” ethos.
But the death penalty, as a fix for a societal problem, doesn’t seem to work.
Too often, DNA evidence has cleared people convicted of murder who are either sitting in prison for long terms or on death row. Those who wait on death row cost states a lot of money through appeals and the attendant legal and security costs.
Late last year, the American Law Institute, a consortium of 4,000 legal experts that created the template for the modern death penalty, issued a report listing the many problems with this ultimate punishment. Among them are the statistical fact that a minority convict is more likely to face the death penalty than a nonminority, and that some judges favor the death penalty as a way to get re-elected. The institute recently voted to drop support for capital punishment.
Moving away from the death penalty does not have to equate to being soft on crime. In fact, a strong case can be made for more use of actual life in prison sentences; sentences in which society can be assured the guilty party will die behind prison walls.
Consider the case of Ashton Moores, now serving a life sentence for a sexual assault and murder in Bangor in 2007. He was charged with arson in 1966, then six years later was convicted of setting a fire at a home in Orono, which took the life of a man living there. He was sentenced to eight to 20 years in Maine State Prison, but was released in time to be convicted for setting fires in Waterville in 1981. Another eight-year sentence, and he was out in 1989.
In 1993, after being implicated in more than a dozen Belfast fires, Moores pleaded guilty to two counts and was sentenced to 20 years with all but 15 years suspended. He was released in 2003, and the murder came just four years later — when he finally received the life sentence.
When applied correctly, an actual life-in-prison sentence — as in the convict dies in prison — may be a better way to provide justice.