The state of Tennessee holds two conflicting majority opinions, and one will have to go. One, the public supports the death penalty. Two, the public supports a lean, efficient government.
The problem is, these positions are incompatible. Even a fly-by look at capital punishment bureaucracy tells the story: A government that institutes the death penalty can’t possibly be lean and efficient. So which do people really want?
An upcoming report may force the issue. The state comptroller’s office is conducting a comprehensive study of capital punishment’s financial costs. It will add up the hours logged by various public employees while trying capital cases, including state and local prosecutors. State Rep. Rob Briley, who has sponsored legislation that calls for a moratorium on the death penalty, expects the study to show that it’s far less expensive to lock people up for life than to pay for their endless appeals.
Capital cases involve some of the most byzantine legal maneuvers in all of law. They can take decades to wind their way through the various levels of the state and federal court system. Because death row inmates typically aren’t high rollers, the state often has to pay for their defense.
This sets up a bizarre system in which taxpayers foot the bill for both trying and defending capital cases. The state employs nearly a half-dozen prosecutors whose primary responsibility is to send people to the chair. Given that Tennessee has put exactly one man to death since the 1960s, they aren’t doing so hot.
If the study finds death penalty costs are astounding, even prohibitive, foes of capital punishment hope that people will rethink the issue. “I think that might make people factor that into their thought processes on the death penalty,” Briley says.
Which brings us to Bredesen. No matter what he says publicly, the governor is clearly bothered by capital punishment. It’s not that he has much compassion for the Paul Dennis Reids of the world: Who does? But the capital cases that cross his desk are usually a lot more complex. There is considerable doubt that either Philip Workman or Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman actually killed the people they were convicted of murdering. And even if they did set in motion the chains of events that led to the killings, they are hardly the worst of the worstnot the cold-blooded, remorseless killers for whom the death penalty is intended.
As for Olen Hutchison, who is scheduled to be executed on March 11, he was in a different county at the time of the murder that got him convicted. As with Abdur’Rahman, a good chunk of the damning evidence comes from supposed accomplices, who cut a sweetheart deal with the prosecution in exchange for testimony. When Bredesen reviews the Hutchison case, he may decide the jury was right. But we suspect he’ll have some doubts.
Of course nobody, certainly not a Democrat, wants to look soft on crime during election season. Publicly acknowledging the moral complexity of these capital cases is all well and good. But no sitting governor wants to get tarred as the second coming of Michael Dukakis. So here’s one possible scenario:
Bredesen announces that while there is no moratorium on the death penalty, there will be no executions until the comptroller’s study is completed later this year. If the study finds the death penalty wastes millions of taxpayer dollars, Bredesen calls a haltstressing that while he remains in favor of capital punishment, it costs too much to maintain as-is. That way he looks fiscally responsible, without opening himself up to Republican charges that he’s a bleeding-heart pantywaist.
In so doing, Bredesen could pull off the seemingly impossible: reconcile public opinions on the death penalty and cost-effective government. If that happens, send him to broker peace betwixt Israel and Palestine.