The Death Penalty

Daniel spent a lot of time in court this past week.  I was there on Thursday to witness arguments regarding one of the biggest aspects of the case: the death penalty.

Scott Sanders (Daniel’s public defender) asked for its removal, claiming repeatedly that it is “arbitrary and capricious.” It’s a valid argument that can probably be used in most capital murder cases.

It didn’t work, though.  Judge Conley was not swayed. Daniel is still facing capital punishment if found guilty, and after five and a half years, it looks like a trial is fast approaching. Jury questionnaires are being prepared as I write this.

I found the judge’s ruling disappointing, but not surprising.

The United States is one of the only Western nations that still uses the death penalty, and if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that it’s all about retribution.  I don’t think people believe that the threat of the death penalty is actually a deterrent to crime. But knowing that the “bad guy got his” seems to make us collectively feel a little better.

I’m not saying that vengeance is a strictly American quality, but we do like it. Who doesn’t cheer during The Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya finally gets to say, “You killed my father; prepare to die!”

If you’d asked me a year ago if I was “pro-death penalty,” I would have said yes. My family might accuse me of being pro-death penalty when someone cuts me off on the freeway. (Seriously?! 55 in the fast lane?!)

I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a liberal with a revenge streak.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love action movies.  Yippee-ki-yay is right!

I’m not so sure anymore.  Personally knowing someone who might end up on death row changes your outlook or at least expands it.

Recently I was listening to an episode of the Crimefeed true-crime podcast on the subject of the death penalty. The special guest was Lieutenant Joe Kenda (from one of my favorite shows, Homicide Hunter).

I love Lt. Joe.  He’s like the Chuck Norris of solving murders.  No surprise, when it comes to the death penalty, Lt. Joe is definitely “pro.”  At one point he said that a defendant should have been “terminated in the courtroom,” and it made me laugh. Then it made me sad.

I know there haven’t been any executions in California since 2006.  Even then, the average time spent on California’s Death Row is about 25 years.  California could even get rid of the death penalty in the near future. So why even bother to send Daniel Wozniak to San Quentin?

It’s a good question, right?  I’m sure the answers would vary greatly depending on whom you ask.

The Orange County District Attorney’s office requested the death penalty in this case citing various “special circumstances” surrounding the crime, including multiple murders and murder for financial gain.

There are other cases in Orange County when similar circumstances are met and the death penalty isn’t sought.

How do they decide?  I’m sure there are numerous reasons, with politics and public opinion being on the top of the list.  Some would say Daniel’s accused crimes are particularly heinous, though.  Perhaps more deserving of the ultimate punishment?

I’m not sure how the victims’ families feel on the topic.  I haven’t read anything about them specifically asking for Daniel’s death, but they clearly want justice, and that might be part of it in their eyes.  I do wonder if seeing Daniel die would help them with their grief.

When I was sitting in the courtroom, I started Googling some death penalty statistics. I found plenty of charts and graphs pointing out racial bias, class inequality (inmates call it the “prize of the poor”), wrongful convictions, and even botched executions.

Serial Killers: Who Received The Death Penalty?

I was also curious about which of the most infamous murderers of our time actually received the death penalty (or “the DP,” as Daniel writes in his letters).

For example:

  • Ted Bundy: DP, executed in Florida on January 24, 1989
  • Charles Manson: Originally received the DP, but then had his sentence commuted to life when the DP was temporarily abolished in California in 1972.
  • John Wayne Gacy: DP, executed in Illinois on May 10, 1994.
  • Aileen Wuornos: DP, executed in Florida on October 9, 2002.
  • Richard Ramirez: Received the DP, but died from cancer on California’s death row on June 7, 2013.
  • Jeffrey Dahmer: Sentenced to life in prison in Wisconsin, he was beaten to death by a fellow inmate on November 28, 1994. (After, his mother was quoted saying,  “Now, is everybody happy?”)
  • David Berkowitz aka The Son of Sam: Sentenced to life in New York (he’s still alive).
  • Dennis Rader aka BTK: Sentenced to life in prison in Kansas (still alive).

When you look at who does or doesn’t receive the death penalty, it’s difficult to debate Scott when he calls it “arbitrary and capricious.”

If someone asked me today if I am pro-death penalty, I would probably say no. But I haven’t experienced the murder of a loved one.  If that happened, I might want some “eye for an eye” revenge.