Life sentence is a better remedy

Approximately six years ago, representatives of the South Dakota Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America directed then-Bishop Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl to ask the state not to carry out the death penalty against Elijah Page and other condemned inmates. Page was eventually executed in July 2007.

The resolution states DeGroot-Nesdahl should "communicate to appropriate state officials the concern of this assembly regarding impending executions and ask that the state of South Dakota refrain from imposing the death penalty on Elijah Page or on others in South Dakota who are awaiting execution."

The resolution was passed in 2006 at the annual Synod Assembly at Augustana College with "a clear majority," the bishop said.

Approximately a year later, Page was executed. Last Monday, 50-year-old Eric Robert was executed at the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls. Robert killed a prison guard during a failed escape attempt.

Six years ago, we agreed with the stand taken by the South Dakota Synod of the ELCA, and our views haven't wavered since.

We believe it is time for South Dakota to follow the lead taken by our neighbors in North Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota.  It is time for South Dakota to abolish the death penalty.

We say this knowing there are plenty of people with opposing views, who support capital punishment as a justified sentence to hand down to someone who commits a heinous crime.

So why have the death penalty? Proponents will point out that, well, people want it. And they'll produce polls that show that the public overwhelmingly supports putting people convicted of certain serious deadly crimes to death.

What's never talked about is the true cost of capital punishment in the United States.

A New Jersey Policy Perspectives report concluded that the state's death penalty has cost taxpayers $253 million since 1983, a figure that is over and above the costs that would have been incurred had the state utilized a sentence of life without parole instead of death. The study examined the costs of death penalty cases to prosecutor offices, public defender offices, courts, and correctional facilities.

A report released by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury recommended changes to the state's death penalty and called into question its effectiveness in preventing crime.

In its review of death penalty expenses, the state of Kansas concluded that capital cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases. The study counted death penalty case costs through to execution and found that the median death penalty case costs $1.26 million. Non-death penalty cases were counted through to the end of incarceration and were found to have a median cost of $740,000.

Capital cases burden county budgets with large unexpected costs, according to a report released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, "The Budgetary Repercussions of Capital Convictions," by Katherine Baicker. Counties manage these high costs by decreasing funding for highways and police and by increasing taxes. The report estimates that between 1982-1997 the extra cost of capital trials was $1.6 billion.

The most comprehensive death penalty study in the country found that the death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million more per execution than a non-death penalty murder case with a sentence of life imprisonment (Duke University, May 1993). On a national basis, these figures translate to an extra cost of over $1 billion spent since 1976 on the death penalty.

Notice a trend here?

Because of the delays, the inconsistency, the drain on the public purse and the nightmarish possibility of executing an innocent person, it is time for the United States to end the practice.

And, if the country won't end it, we can at least abolish it here in South Dakota, where we're lucky if we can scrape together enough money each year to adequately fund education, or provide needed health care services for our elderly. We must be prepared to do all we can to offer economic incentives to attract new businesses, and tap into wind and bio-energy.

We can do all of this and still maintain a clear sense of justice in South Dakota without the death penalty.

Society's worst offenders merit no sympathy. They'll get none here. If you're the victim of a crime, especially a murder that's ripped a jagged hole in your life where a loved one used to be, you have a right to be outraged and emotional. You're entitled to think of fundamental safeguards like due process and a presumption of innocence as annoyances.

It's not the victim's responsibility to be calm and dispassionate, but it is the law's. Courts must deal firmly and decisively with murderers, but that isn't happening under a scheme that deals out death penalties with whimsical unpredictability and makes victims wait years, even decades, for resolution.

Life in prison without parole is a better solution than a death sentence.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at

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