Hospira, the sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental, more commonly known as the chemical agent used in lethal injections, announced today it will cease production of the drug. The company’s main facility is located in Milan, and recently the site was visited by Italian government officials, demanding a guarantee that the chemical compound will no longer be used to end lives. With the imminent postponement of any standing executions as a result of this news, the 35 state governments that currently make provisions for the death penalty should extensively analyze the issue; their findings should lead to nothing less than a massive overhaul.
The death penalty remains one of the most divisive issues in the country. 64% of Americans approve of state-sanctioned executions in cases of aggravated murder, while 29% oppose them; interestingly though, only 49% approve of the same measures when imprisonment without the possibility of parole is the alternative. Since 1976, when the death penalty was re-enacted following the Supreme Court’s decision in Gregg vs. Georgia, 1,237 inmates have been put to death; roughly one-third of these executions has occurred in Texas. An additional 3,259 prisoners currently reside on death row.
The heated argument that stems from considering the death penalty as a barbaric practice is fodder for another discussion. However, executing prisoners under current conditions is not a feasible form of punishment, viewed strictly in terms of expenditure. For instance, the 1989 execution of Ted Bundy cost Florida taxpayers an estimated $5 million; the convicted serial killer, who confessed to 28 murders in four states when he was apprehended, received three stays of execution before he was finally put to death. The act of execution itself is relatively cheap; a 2003 report by the Florida state government claimed that roughly $850 is spent on final meal preparation, undertaker and executioner fees.
This means that, in each case, the exorbitant price tag is mostly derived from the convoluted appeals procedure that accompanies a death sentence. When a prisoner is condemned, the case is typically subjected to three separate processes: direct review, in which an appellate court determines the soundness of the sentence; state collateral review, a supplemental appraisal of the judgment in non-federal cases; and habeas corpus, which allows the prisoner to file a suit in federal court that challenges the findings in the initial trial and the previous two reviews. If a prisoner is still deemed to be worthy of a death penalty after these three hearings, then an execution date is set – that is, unless the prisoner is allowed to file a section 1983, which is essentially a second habeas corpus suit, protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Collectively, this system of justice is a thorough method of determining both soundness of the defendant’s judgment and his/her deservedness of death for their crime(s). However, the accompanying rigamarole can last longer than a decade, and several million dollars for legal fees, court costs and housing/feeding the prisoner are spent in the meantime.
Contrast this with the cost of imprisoning an individual for life. Texas, the runaway leader for annual executions, estimates that the state spends $2.3 million per death penalty case; this is approximately three times more expensive than imprisoning the same individual for 40 years. In California, where capital trials are six times more costly than other murder trials, state officials estimate that $90 million per year would be saved if capital punishment was abolished. Georgia laid off 900 Department of Corrections employees in the last two years, but millions of dollars have been funneled into ensuring that the state is still able to kill its convicted murderers. A recent study of New York’s judicial system estimated that enabling the death penalty for five years cost more than it would to fund 250 state police officers and build facilities that would properly house 6,000 inmates for at least two decades.
Yet, America is a democracy, and the people have spoken. However, given the recent developments with Hospira and the implications they have on our current system, it is reasonable to expect that our leaders will devise a more efficient system for executing prisoners. Whether the practice is inhumane or justified is subject to opinion, but its massive financial expense to American citizens is a matter of public record, and this merits major consideration from everyone.