Lately, the national spotlight has been focused on Georgia’s death penalty system. Although this focus has been on a few high-profile cases, the scrutiny also should be on the entire capital punishment program — one that is plagued by frequent errors, inefficiency and waste. As a lifelong conservative Republican, I have come to believe the death penalty is no longer worth the cost or risk for Georgia.
Numerous studies show death penalty cases can cost millions of dollars more than life-without-parole criminal cases. While recent press accounts have shown how the appeals and clemency process in death penalty cases takes considerable time, effort and expense, the most expensive segment of a capital case, by far, is the initial trial.
Death penalty trials involve far more police investigations, court motions, prosecutor and defense attorney time, expert testimony, and other court and investigation resources than other criminal trials. Frequently, these cases lead to multi-million dollar bills the taxpayers have to fund. They even have been responsible for property tax increases here in Georgia. This high price could easily have been avoided simply by seeking a life-without-parole sentence, which is an appropriate and serious punishment.
My personal experience corroborates the studies’ findings. In my first job after law school, I served as a judicial law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit here in Atlanta, where I was confronted firsthand with the death penalty’s expense and complexities. Each capital appeal required far more time of the judges and court staff than comparable life-without-parole appeals and often came back for court review multiple times.
Although it may be tempting to limit these appeals, when you limit the appeals process, you significantly increase the risk of executing an innocent person. Past cases show it can take well over 30 years to clear a wrongly convicted individual who has been sentenced to death.
Even with all this increased cost and effort required to administer capital punishment, it still does not produce favorable outcomes for our state. In fact, there remains an unacceptable risk to innocent life. Georgia has executed 57 individuals and wrongly convicted and released five from death row, while others were executed despite serious questions surrounding their guilt. Troy Davis was executed 20 years after his conviction, but growing doubt about his verdict was not enough to halt his execution. Our government is not perfect, and when you give an imperfect state the power of life and death, innocent lives will inevitably be exposed to the fallibility of the system.
Compounding these issues is the realization capital punishment fails to keep the public safe. There is no legitimate evidence that supports the claim the death penalty prevents murder, and multiple studies have come to the conclusion there is no such preventive effect. In fact, there is likely no causal relationship between the death penalty and murder rates at all.
Beyond this, our current death penalty system often adds to the pain and suffering of a murder victim’s family and friends. These family and friends sadly find the death penalty system harmful due to the stress, anxiety and uncertainty from the myriad trials, appeals, postponed execution dates and ceaseless media attention. Justice should be swift for victims’ families, but the death penalty is anything but swift.
Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program. It fails the very people it is supposed to serve: victims’ families and society as a whole. As such, I believe the death penalty simply has become far too expensive and cumbersome to administer in our state.
As a conservative, I expect my government to find the most cost-effective means to achieve its goals, and life in prison without parole offers a far more cost-effective and speedy, yet still serious, punishment than the death penalty. In the past two years, our governor and General Assembly have done great work reforming Georgia’s criminal justice, juvenile justice and probation systems, and have achieved great savings of financial and human costs in the process. We need to apply these same conservative principles to our most serious crimes and replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole.
David J. Burge is an attorney and chairman of the Georgia 5th Congressional District Republican Party. He is a partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell in Atlanta.