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The Death Penalty Debate In Iowa

The Death Penalty Debate In Iowa

State Senator Kent Sorenson (R-Milo) has been busy so far this session making an aggressive public push to have Iowa reinstate the death penalty.  The main impetus for this was the horrifying double murder of two young cousins in Evansdale last year—an act that certainly justifies the punishment.  Having said that, now is not the time to suck up energy and oxygen on something that even Sorenson himself agrees will not make it to the Governor’s desk.

The Death Penalty As An Issue

The issue itself has two main facets—the morality of capital punishment and the legal system which weighs the evidence and carries out the sentence.  The morality concerns in my view are simply ridiculous, as the idea in principal that someone guilty of taking lives is entitled to live because we are “better than that” just doesn’t square.  In essence what this argument says is that due to merely being born and drawing a breath we have a “right” to live regardless of our actions on this earth.  Besides there being no rational basis for this “right”, this principal forces one to say that men like Hitler or Pol Pot somehow should benefit from a social compact which, only because they were born, guarantees their continued existence.  I can’t imagine anyone winning that argument—or frankly even making it.

The concerns regarding wrongly executing innocent human beings is a far more valid one.  Most people who spend their lives in the criminal justice system as lawyers and judges surprisingly will tell you that the system has too many inherent flaws to guarantee all those convicted of murder are in fact guilty.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising considering it is a human endeavor injected with strong emotions on all sides and occasional prejudices.  Even with an exhaustive appeals process in place these concerns should not be ignored with the stakes so high.

Ironically, even in the states with the death penalty neither side is satisfied.  Those who oppose it are incensed it exists, and those who support it rightly argue that sadistic killers routinely live on death row for 20 plus years.  The trick for those who in principal support capital punishment is to delineate between cases of obvious guilt and the more “who-done-it” circumstantial cases.

A Possible Solution

If actual legislation were forwarded to return Iowa to a death penalty state, dealing with some of these legitimate concerns would be essential.  My proposal for doing so would be to have the legal process play out much as it does now.  Once a defendant is found guilty of murder, is sentenced to death, and loses a limited number of appeals (which are skipped to the front of all legal lines), the case would go before a panel of three judges.  These judges would be appointed by either the Governor or the Legislature and would be tasked with reviewing the case.  If all three judges agreed that the suspect is unquestionably guilty of the crime or crimes the death penalty would be carried out within a year of their ruling.

By putting in the extra safe-guard all reasonable concerns of a wrongfully accused person being put to death could be virtually eliminated.  This would allow for proper justice to be administered in the very few cases where a murderer either confesses, is captured on video, or kills multiple people in a public shooting situation.  There is no reason why separating out these rare situations can’t be accomplished, and if those advocating for the death penalty are serious they need to focus on ways of ensuring that those executed are done so justly.  In the current climate it will not be enough to just activate it again as a legal punishment.

Wrong Time, Wrong Priority

Though brining the death penalty back to Iowa would be a welcome development to me personally, at this moment in time it is a wasted effort.

Besides the fact that it will never see a vote in both chambers, the last several sessions have failed to produce tax reform, education reform, mental health reform, and the gas tax issue is still bubbling below the surface.  Until these issues are dealt with permanently the death penalty debate should remain on the back burner.

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