Killing in the name of justice

(Published in the Gettysburg Times, 3/28/2014)

Feb 20 this year, Gov. Tom Corbett signed execution warrant #31 of his tenure. Currently 190 prisoners await their punishment on Pennsylvania’s “Death Row.” One of them is Christopher Lynn Johnson.

The night of Nov. 10, 2010, Johnson had been poaching deer. When Wildlife Conservation Officer David Grove tried to arrest him, Johnson pulled a .45-caliber pistol from his holster and started a gunfight that resulted in the death of Officer Grove.

October 4, 2012, after finding Johnson guilty of First Degree Murder, the jury of his peers declared that we would kill him.

You kill a police officer, and we will kill you back.

Earlier this month, Johnson, through Adams County Public Defender Kristin Rice, appealed the sentence to the state’s highest court. Rice said another two years likely will pass before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court turns thumbs up or down on that appeal

We don’t want to hear that Johnson was drunk that night, or that he is remorseful for killing another human being – both arguments attempted at trial and included in the appeal earlier this month.

One life is worth as much as another. That’s the law. But one of the reasons Johnson was eligible for the death penalty was he killed a police officer. If Grove were not a police officer, Johnson likely would have argued he did not intend to kill him. District Attorney Shawn Wagner would have pointed out Johnson proved his intent when he aimed a deadly weapon at the officer and fired, 15 times, and killed Grove.

We justify state-sanctioned killing by saying it is a deterrent, yet at best the data is mixed. Can we really expect that Christopher Johnson – drunk, committing a felony and primarily interested in not going back to jail – stopped to think he could be sentenced to death if he killed the officer trying to arrest him? Or that the next person in the same situation would hesitate and contemplate what happened to Johnson?

“The studies don’t look separately at the subset of murders that are eligible for the death penalty, instead lumping all homicides together,” ColumbiaUniversity law professor Jeffrey A. Fagan writes.

He points out deterrence is well-established as ineffective in situations marked by spontaneity and unpredictability.

Any trial is expensive. Our Constitution declares that every accused person has a right to competent counsel. But costs increase as soon as the prosecutor declares he will seek the death penalty. At that point, the trial requires two defense attorneys, each certified to represent clients for whom execution might be an outcome. Taxpayers pay for the additional attorney if the defendant cannot.

Additional costs are incurred in hiring experts for both the prosecution and defense, including mitigation experts who can specifically address conditions such as mental state, including intoxication, duress and intent of the defendant.

The cost is “significantly more to litigate a death penalty than to put someone in jail for life,” Rice told me recently.

Then, prisoners sentenced to death are housed separately from other inmates, with special guards and other special provisions.

The most recent execution warrant signed by Gov. Corbett was Feb. 20, for Stephen Rex Edmiston, convicted and sentenced in 1989 in CambriaCounty of raping and murdering two-year-old Bobbi Jo Matthew in October 1988. No one has been executed in Pennsylvania since 1999. Several of the state’s 190 death row inmates were sentenced in the mid-1980s, the longest was sentenced in November 1985.

Although calculating the actual total cost of a capital conviction and death penalty process is difficult to determine, Life Without Chance of Parole clearly is less expensive than the process between the guilty verdict and the administration of the fatal injection.

We have a right – a duty – to protect our community from those who have shown themselves to be violent and a threat to safety.

Killing one of us damages all of us. Killing to avenge a killing diminishes us all equally.

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