The Costs of Executions

May 15, 1994

For the first time in 33 years, the state of Maryland is about to execute someone. All the appeals, delays, second thoughts, recriminations, prayers and curses will have been exhausted when a representative of the state injects John Thanos with three chemicals which, if things go as expected, will kill him in less than 2 minutes.

Things might not go as expected. When the state of Illinois executed John Wayne Gacy last Tuesday, the tube feeding the lethal cocktail into his bloodstream clogged. His dying took 18 minutes. Since Thanos will be the first Marylander executed by chemical injection, it would not be surprising if there are glitches in his case.

We cannot help but wonder what the reaction will be in the state to its first execution since June 9, 1961. For much of the past three decades, no one was executed here because of clever defense lawyering and judicial reticence. But we would like to believe that in those years the citizens of Maryland didn't really want their government to kill people. We would like to believe they still don't. We know from polls and legislative action that the people wanted and still want a death penalty statute. Still we wonder if that means they want it actually implemented. We hope they will be revulsed at an execution. We shall soon see.

We do not want see here anything like the spectacle in Illinois in the hours leading up to the execution of Gacy. People parading in clown suits. People chanting "John-nee! John-nee!" outside the prison where the execution took place. Commemorative and gag tee-shirts on sale to the throngs of the curious and thrill-seekers. Meanwhile, an entertainer, Phil Donahue, is trying to broadcast an execution on his television show. Live.

L This is Western civilization on the eve of the 21st century?

It is not out of sympathy for Thanos that we want to see him live. It is out of a belief that the death penalty is barbaric and harmful to society. This is an outmoded form of "justice" that should have been discarded years ago, and has been in many civilized nations -- and, indeed, in many states of this nation. Its use demeans and desensitizes all of us.

Nor does the death penality achieve two of the principal goals advocates promised and the Supreme Court endorsed. It doesn't deter other killers, as murder rates in Southern states which routinely employ the death penalty show. And it does not save a state a cent of the cost in housing a killer behind bars for life. That's because trial, conviction, sentencing and appellate review are so expensive in capital cases, as Gov. William Donald Schaefer's Commission on the Death Penalty reported last year. Other studies suggest it costs a state more overall when it has the death penalty.

That's in money. The cost to a state's moral authority can't be calculated.

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