House Speaker Mike Chenault's decision to push for reinstitution of the death penalty in Alaska is bewildering. He offers no rationale for his idea. He tells us he is convinced the death penalty has no value as a deterrent. So what benefit, may I ask, does he have in mind?
If he has done any significant research, Chenault surely knows that the ongoing cost of this discredited practice makes it by far the most expensive of all penalties for violent crime. Moreover, he must have learned that the death penalty is outrageously capricious, and also is problematic for law enforcement and responsible criminal prosecution. A Juneau Empire article on March 12 indicated that the audience at the recent Native Issues Forum gave him an earful as to the inevitable racial bias and unfairness of the death penalty.
Another factor Chenault apparently doesn't understand is how destructive and agonizing the death penalty usually proves to be for the grieving families of murder victims. The U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 Gregg v. Georgia ruling restored constitutionality of the death penalty after a four-year moratorium. However, that ruling also established such stringent safeguards and appeal rights as to make it all but impossible for a death penalty sentence to be carried for many years, sometimes for a decade or longer. The inevitable result is prolonged agony for the families of the murder victim. Here in Alaska and in other states enlightened enough to have no death penalty statute, the appeal process following a murder conviction normally runs its course within a year or two. The families of victims are able to move on toward closure without being haunted by long years of embittering uncertainty.
During the historic 1957 session, the Alaska Territorial Legislature abolished the death penalty in the state. In doing so, they rose to their finest hour. I call on Chenault to leave their good work alone.