Regular readers know that I have trouble with the death penalty from a policy perspective; the cost of seeking a death sentence and then weathering the appeals, etc. dwarfs the cost of sentencing a person to life imprisonment. I'll concede that, rightly or wrongly, there may be some particular satisfaction in seeing someone like Timothy McVeigh (or, if we ever catch him, Osama bin Laden) get a death sentence, but most capital cases are like this one:
Jurors began deliberating Friday in the first death-penalty trial in Vermont in nearly 50 years after a prosecutor told them the defendant made "cold-blooded, rational decisions" to kidnap and kill a supermarket worker.
But an attorney for Donald Fell, while not arguing for his innocence, said Fell made "a series of bad decisions that led to tragedy."
"This is not planning," attorney Alexander Bunin said.
Jurors began deliberating shortly before 2 p.m., after hearing instructions from U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions.
Fell, 25, is accused of joining another man in carjacking Terry King from a Rutland supermarket, taking her across the state line to New York, and beating her to death as she prayed. The other suspect, Robert Lee, hanged himself in prison in 2001.
It certainly sounds like Fell is a pretty scary guy; I mean, beating someone to death while she's praying? But as heinous as that is, here's the part of the story that really bothers me:
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected a plea deal that would have given Fell life in prison.
I realize that I don't have all of the facts of the case before me, but then, the people who had the best access to the facts were the line prosecutors, and if I read that sentence correctly, they were prepared to accept the plea bargain. Instead, AG Ashcroft overrode their decision. Why? Presumably, by pleading guilty, Fell would waive almost all of his right to appeal, so the taxpayers (and family members of the victim) would be spared the possibility of an acquittal, as well as continued attention when the case goes through the appeals process (assuming conviction).
Retribution is a powerful desire, but you have to balance that against the cost of exacting that retribution. At trial, Fell might be acquitted; or he might be convicted but escape the death sentence (which would end up in the same result as if the plea had been taken). Even if he does receive the death sentence, it might be overturned on appeal or in post-conviction proceedings. Even if he is eventually executed, is it worth the extra cost, in a time when we are running budget deficits, Social Security and Medicare are looming fiscal disaster, Iraq is costing us, what, $1 billion a day? I don't mean for this to be an abolitionist argument (though you are free to read it that way); I just think that given the cost of capital cases, there should be some heavy burden to justify treating a case that way, and it irks me that the Attorney General butted in to a case that the line prosecutors had set up to be disposed of quickly and efficiently.