House debates death penalty

New bill would allow execution by lethal injection in Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Alaska lawmakers began hearings Wednesday on a proposal that would reinstate the death penalty, a practice abolished by the territory of Alaska more than half a century ago.

The legislation sponsored by House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, known as House Bill 9, would allow execution by lethal injection in cases of first-degree murder.

Public testimony in the first of two House Judiciary Committee hearings scheduled on the bill ran overwhelmingly in opposition to the measure.

Phil Smith of Juneau said he remembered when the practice was abolished in 1957, two years before statehood. He was a young boy in Cordova and his parents were thrilled at the action of the territorial Legislature.

"I'd consider it to be a tragedy to give ourselves a birthday present after 50 years of returning to the barbarous imposition of the death penalty on anybody," Smith said.

Chenault's bill would give the attorney general's office the option of seeking the death penalty in a particular case. A jury would decide if the punishment was warranted and make a recommendation to the judge, who would decide.

The state Supreme Court would automatically review each death penalty sentence.

Chenault said he considers the death penalty a tool to ensure that the worst criminals never have an opportunity to reoffend.

"While I don't believe personally that it is a deterrent, I believe it should be an option for the justice system to brandish before the most heinous and unremorseful criminals in our society," he said.

According to the Washington D.C. based Death Penalty Information Center, 36 states have the death penalty although two states have not had an execution since 1976.

Critics of the death penalty say it is costly, ineffective and discriminatory.

Juneau resident Bill Pelke with Alaskans Against the Death Penalty pointed to statistics that say more than 130 people in the U.S. have been sentenced to death since 1976 for crimes they did not commit.

Pelke told of how his grandmother was murdered in Indiana in 1985 by four girls who entered her home on the pretext of coming for Bible lessons.

Pelke said he wanted revenge at first but when a 15-year-old girl was placed on death row for her murder, he realized his grandmother would have been appalled at the idea. He said he has shared his story around the world telling people how "the death penalty has absolutely nothing to do with the healing the murder victim's family members need when a loved one has been killed.

"It just continues the cycle of violence and creates more murder victim family members," Pelke said.

Ketchikan attorney Loren Stanton said the death penalty was handing the DA's office "a weapon to eviscerate the idea of a jury system." Stanton said the threat of capital punishment would give too much leverage to state prosecutors and force guilty pleas out of defendants who could be innocent.

Frank Turney of Fairbanks voiced support for the measure, saying costs could be cut with a guillotine or a firing squad "fast and swift."

"Jurors are capable of deciding what's heinous and what's not," Turney said.

Committee documents showed increased costs throughout Alaska's judicial system if capital punishment was reinstated. The state Office of Public Advocacy alone would need another 20 staff members based on four first degree homicide cases a year requiring the work of public defenders, according to OPA's Quinlan Steiner.

Other states have reported capital punishment resulted in much higher costs than life imprisonment.

The Los Angeles Times in 2005 reported that the California death penalty system cost taxpayers $114 million per year beyond the costs of keeping convicts locked up for life. Taxpayers have paid more than $250 million for each of the state's executions.

A 2003 state audit in Kansas showed costs of capital cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-capital cases, including the costs of incarceration.

Chenault said he would be surprised if the legislation passed this year. He said his intent is simply to restart the discussion and build from there.

"The comfort level has to be built and the legislation has to be modeled on what the comfort level is of the Legislature," Chenault said.

Co-sponsor and committee chairman Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, said the Legislature has far more immediate issues to deal with this session.

A death penalty bill was last considered in the Alaska Legislature in 1997. That bill would have authorized a nonbinding advisory vote asking voters if the Legislature should reinstate capital punishment. It passed the state Senate but died in the House Finance Committee.

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