September 29, 2006

Death Penalty Referendum

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

On Tuesday, November 7th when you go to vote, as I trust you will, your ballot will have the following question on it: “Should the death penalty be enacted in the State of Wisconsin for cases involving a person who is convicted of multiple first-degree intentional homicides, if the homicides are vicious and the convictions are supported by DNA evidence?”

The ballot will allow you to answer “yes” or “no” to this question.  This is a referendum, so even if a majority of the state answers “yes,” the death penalty will not become law.  Nevertheless the answer to this question should be a resounding “no.” 

There has only been one execution in Wisconsin’s history.  This brutal event happened over 150 years ago and caused a local newspaper to write that “we hope this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin.”  Thankfully, it was, but this referendum may threaten that mercy.

Supporters of the death penalty suggest that people are entitled to an “eye for an eye.”  When this issue was debated in the spring, a constituent of mine contacted me to say she was opposed to the death penalty, and gave me her reason why: “My father was killed by a violent crime, and I speak from experience when I say that I was and still am opposed to the death penalty.  Killing the man who killed my father would not have brought him back to life.  It would just have added to the death toll.”

Others support the death penalty because they say it acts as a deterrent to violent criminals.  Why then, do the states with the most executions have the highest murder rates?  Wisconsin is one of twelve states without the death penalty and ten of those twelve states, including Wisconsin, have a lower homicide rate than the national average.

Still more shocking are those who favor the death penalty simply because they think it costs less to kill a prisoner than to keep him in jail for life.  This could not be farther from the truth.  Death penalty cases cost more to investigate, prosecute, and appeal.  These costs are a direct burden to taxpayers.

The facts are simply not on the side of the death penalty.  There are no clear cut figures that support it as a deterrent, yet statistics show that a convicted killer is much more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim is white.  This racial bias cannot persist when lives are at stake.  Furthermore, the chance of a wrongful execution, after over 120 people have been freed from death row after being proven innocent, outweighs any perceived benefits of the death penalty.

Ultimately, the only reason this referendum is on the ballot is because of political posturing on the part of Republicans.  By delaying the referendum and making sure it appears on the fall ballot, Republicans are hoping this emotional issue motivates their voting base, which traditionally supports the death penalty.  I hope that this raises emotions in you so that you come out to vote in opposition to this referendum because we cannot let people play politics with the lives of our citizens.

While a “yes” result from the state will not create the death penalty, it will give supporters more reasons to bring it to the legislature.  We cannot let Wisconsin take a step back 150 years in time.  Join me in voting “no” on this referendum and show the world that Wisconsin is a progressive state that values justice, mercy, rationality, and human life.