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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Assembly Candidates Debate Death Penalty Referendum

This article appered in the Wisconsin Chetek Alert on October18, 2006:

Assembly candidates debate death penalty referendum

by Jeremy A. Jensen

When Wisconsin voters head to the polls for the 2006 general election on Tuesday, Nov. 7, they will decide the fate of numerous candidates. Voters will also have the opportunity to weigh in on a referendum that would advise the state on whether residents are behind a movement to allow judges and juries to decide the fate of convicted murderers.

The UW-Barron County chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa fraternity, an honor society for two-year colleges, sponsored a forum on the upcoming referendum Wednesday, Oct. 11, at UW-Barron County. Democratic state Rep. Mary Hubler of Rice Lake and her opponent, Dari McDonald of Birchwood, addressed students, faculty and visitors on what the referendum means-not only for voters, but also for the 153-year ban on the death penalty in Wisconsin.

The referendum is expected to appear on the statewide Tuesday, Nov. 7, ballot as follows: "Should the death penalty be enacted in the state of Wisconsin for cases involving a person who is convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, if the conviction is supported by DNA evidence?" Death penalty supporters hope the result will encourage the Legislature to enact a law lifting the state's ban on the death penalty; opponents of the death penalty fear an expansion of the death penalty beyond the scope stated in the referendum, and hope a negative result will once again put the issue to rest.

Each candidate was given 18 minutes to speak on the referendum in front of a packed lecture room, with a question-and-answer period to follow.

McDonald, who later said she was not aware she would be given 18 minutes to speak, took approximately five minutes to explain her position on the referendum and the death penalty.

"The state of Wisconsin is very interested in what the voters' feelings are on the death penalty," McDonald stated. "They have put this referendum on the ballot in order to get your opinion on the death penalty, and whether judges and juries should be allowed that option in cases involving first-degree murder."

McDonald said the referendum was narrow in its wording, and would only apply to first-degree murder convictions that had corroborating DNA evidence."

I am supportive of the death penalty for the most heinous crimes committed," McDonald said. "For repeat sex offenders, especially against juveniles, for terrorists, and for crimes against policemen, law enforcement, or armed forces personnel serving here or abroad."

McDonald concluded her statement by stating that being supportive of the death penalty is giving consideration for the victims-victims that have already lost their lives, as well as possible future victims.

"It gives families of the victims a small measure of peace to know that these people will never commit these crimes again," McDonald stated. "The death penalty also prevents other families of future victims from having to go through similar pain."

Hubler's response

Rep. Hubler responded to McDonald's statements by first providing a history of the death penalty in Wisconsin.

According to Hubler, Wisconsin used the death penalty when it was a territory. The punishment could only be applied in cases involving murder, with the other stipulation being that the offender had to be hanged. In 1848, when Wisconsin became a state, those drafting the state's constitution made no mention of whether Wisconsin was to have the death penalty or not, which meant the state used the death penalty by default.

Between 1848 and 1851, four people were put to death in the state of Wisconsin. It was the final execution in 1851 that finally pushed the state Legislature over the edge. Hubler explained that in Wisconsin's early statehood, thousands of people would come to the public hangings to view the executions, and this one didn't set well with onlookers.

"The guy didn't exactly go quickly," Hubler remarked. "Doctors had to keep checking him and checking him, and he was finally pronounced dead after quite a long time."

The public outrage caused by the spectacle caused the Legislature to pass a law banning the practice in 1853, and ever since, Wisconsin has been among the minority of states that doesn't have the death penalty.

Public outcry wasn't the only reason for the elimination of the practice in Wisconsin. The state was planning to build its first prison in Waupun, which was completed in 1854. That institution ushered in a different way of thinking.

"That meant other options, like life in prison," said Hubler. "When you get a life sentence in the state of Wisconsin, you cannot get out. Period. It's called death by prison."

In the recent history of the death penalty in the United States, Hubler said the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the practice in 1972, claiming it was being applied too randomly. However, it was reinstated in 1976. In 1999, according to Hubler, 61 executions were conducted in the United States, and there are currently 3,500 inmates on death row across the country.

"A bill to reinstate the death penalty has been introduced in every session since 1973, and never has there been a vote on whether to reinstate the death penalty," said Hubler. "Not when Republicans were in control, not when Democrats were in control-never."

Hubler went on to state the referendum smells like election-year politicking, due to the fact that the referendum has no legal binding-meaning the state does not have to act on the referendum even if there is overwhelming support in favor of allowing the death penalty.

"The party in charge is putting politics ahead of policy," Hubler stated. "They're saying, 'Let's just put it out there and see if there is support out there for this, and, oh, by the way, let's see who we can get revved up to get out to the polls."

In fact, Hubler said, the Republicans didn't even have enough votes to get the referendum on the ballot originally. While the Senate passed the referendum, the Assembly actually defeated it the first time around. Hubler said it wasn't until a special session was called-and then not until three members of the Assembly were mysteriously asked to "take a walk" while the final vote was being taken-that the measure finally passed.

"Those were three votes that would have defeated the referendum," said Hubler. "Gee, I wonder why they were asked to leave."

Opposition to death penalty

There are five different reasons people oppose the death penalty, said Hubler. Those reasons are that the practice is morally wrong, it costs too much, DNA evidence is not infallible, the death penalty discriminates, and it doesn't make the community any safer.

"It fulfills the need for vengeance," Hubler admitted. "But we're a civilized society, and we can look at other options. The Code of Hammurabi-"an eye for an eye" may work in more oppressive nations, but the rest of the world goes the other way."

Hubler stated that other than the obvious moral implications in putting someone to death, cost is the biggest reason not to instate the death penalty in Wisconsin.

"States that have the death penalty spend more time and more money to get prepared for administering the punishment-whether they are ever going to use it or not," said Hubler. "It costs a lot of money for capital trials. There are appeals in both the state and federal courts. You have to build death penalty facilities, and you have to train people to run the equipment. All of this costs money."

Hubler added that the states of New York and New Jersey have spent over $350 million to prepare for administering the death penalty in those states' and they have yet to execute one person.

"Some people say it's easy to cut the costs-just cut the appeal time or shorten the number of appeals," said Hubler. "That's great, but what happens if you're one of the 127 people who have been sitting on death row that have been exonerated-127 people that served a total of 1,000 years in prison?"

Innocent people do get put to death, and innocent people do spend time on death row," said Hubler.
Hubler attributes a growing "CSI" mentality to a disturbing faith in DNA evidence.

"We've become this 'CSI' society, where we think all we need to get a conviction is just a little bit of DNA evidence," said Hubler. "DNA evidence is not infallible. This 'magic bullet' called DNA is not a gold standard; it's only as good as the people examining the results. We think no one that's innocent is ever going to be convicted again, and that's just not the way it is."

The color and economic lines drawn by capital punishment cannot be ignored, according to Hubler. She stated that most of the people on death row are people of color or are poor. People of color, especially African-Americans, are more likely to get the death penalty for similar crimes to those committed by whites, stated Hubler, who attributed the higher rates to economic disadvantage.

"The best defense I ever saw was O.J. [Simpson]," said Hubler, drawing laughter from the crowd. "But if you're poor, you can't afford those kinds of lawyers."

Finally, Hubler argued that the death penalty doesn't make communities any safer.

"We have a lower crime rate than most states that have the death penalty," Hubler stated. "You want to be safe? Lock them up and throw away the key. We have a death sentence in Wisconsin-it's called life in prison with no chance of parole."

Candidates respond to questions

After their presentations, the Assembly hopefuls were asked to respond to a number of questions from the audience. The first question dealt with the cost of keeping inmates in prison versus keeping them on death row.

"To keep a prisoner in prison in Wisconsin is expensive," said McDonald, adding that the costs often push judges to approve parolees that would normally be considered high-risk to re-offend. "A lot of times prisoners out on parole are getting back into society and committing more crimes."

McDonald said the cost associated with the DNA sequencing tests necessary to administer the death penalty proposed in the referendum is very small compared to keeping people in prison.

"DNA testing is very reliable, and it wouldn't be used for everyone," said McDonald. "Just for the most heinous crimes like murder, terrorism and sexual predators."

Hubler countered by stating that it costs $25,000 a year to keep a death row inmate incarcerated, which is more than what is spent per student on K-12 education or UW System education.

"It costs $2.39 million to put a prisoner to death, and it only costs $1 million to keep a prisoner in prison for 40 years," said Hubler. "That's almost three times the cost."

Hubler added that she knows what it's like to be a victim of a crime-Hubler was robbed at knife point by two men in Madison in February of 2005-so she realizes the question of whether or not to have the death penalty is bigger than just the cost involved.

"But it's three times the cost, and it's not necessarily going to make anyone safer," said Hubler.

"But don't you have to look at the price of life?" McDonald asked Hubler. "Who might be the next victim?"

Hubler countered a question on overflowing prisons by stating that Wisconsin's prisons are, in fact, not overflowing.

"We can thank former Gov. Tommy Thompson for that, because when the state built all those prisons in the '90s, it assured we could bring all of our prisoners back from out of state," said Hubler. "Our current prison capacity is 22,000, so that's just not an issue."

Hubler also pointed out that most states that have the death penalty don't use it, which means they spend all the money on the facilities for nothing-especially when in Hubler's mind, the death penalty doesn't work.

"And in states where they do have the death penalty, the police have more problems," said Hubler. "It becomes a 'dead men tell no tales' mentality. The criminals have less to lose because they know the death penalty exists, so they are willing to kill law enforcement officers to try and get away."

Hubler summed up her position by reminding the audience that innocent people will be put to death as long as the death penalty exists because there is no such thing as infallible evidence.

"Until you have something that's completely infallible-100 percent right-then I can't imagine that anyone in this room would be for the death penalty if there was a possibility of putting innocent people to death," said Hubler.

"DNA evidence is very reliable, and it gives us the best chance of getting murderers and people who commit these heinous crimes off the streets," McDonald countered.

"That's my point, it's a chance," replied Hubler. "There's a chance you might put the wrong person to death. Put them in prison for life, and there's no chance of them re-offending."


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