December 21, 2005

Is the Death Penalty Wisconsin's Next Step Backwards?

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

The State of Wisconsin administered its first execution in August 1851.  The Kenosha hanging of a convicted murderer was such a barbaric public spectacle, the editor of the local newspaper wrote: “We hope this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin.”

It was.  That single case of capital punishment was enough to prompt the new state legislature to permanently abolish the death penalty less than two years later. 

Fast forward 152 years to the current legislature, where some members of the majority party believe the time is right to restore the state’s ability to punish its criminals by killing them.

Does the Republican majority in the legislature reflect the priorities of our “mercy-expecting citizens”?

In 2005, the legislature’s priorities include: promoting concealed weapons in public; banning birth control distribution on college campuses; shutting down life-saving stem-cell research; and prohibiting already-illegal same-sex marriage.

To many, this platform represents several steps backwards from the compassionate Wisconsin political traditions that have come to form the bedrock of our society.        

Yet despite repeated defeats, GOP leaders push the same agenda again and again, coldly calculating the value of fighting these public battles. 

Every time the legislature attempts to repeal the state’s 134 year old concealed weapons ban, mass emails and calls go out to the party faithful and conservative true believers with one message: “We can do it this time, but we need your help. Give until it hurts.”

It is not unusual for the majority party to manipulate the legislature’s agenda to excite its base of voters and aid political fundraising efforts.

The death penalty, however, must never become such a political tool.  All those other legislative gaffes can be undone.  With capital punishment, there is no going back.  No political fix can be administered if an innocent person is killed by mistake.   

The death penalty is the final step backwards in the undoing of Wisconsin’s legacy. 

The Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections and Privacy is expected to consider a bill reinstating capital punishment, after recently hearing testimony on a proposed advisory referendum for state voters. 

The late US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall believed that if people understood how the death penalty was administered, they would oppose it.  “The question… is not whether a substantial proportion of American citizens would today, if polled, opine that capital punishment is barbarously cruel, but whether they would find it to be so in light of all information presently available.”

Republican death penalty supporters will need a substantial misinformation campaign before taking this issue to the people for a vote, because the evidence presently available does little to support ending Wisconsin’s 152 year ban on executions.   

  • Homicide rates in death penalty states are consistently higher than in states without the death penalty.  
  • The race of the victim typically determines whether a convicted killer is sentenced to death.  A federal government report showed that a death sentence is several times more likely if the murder victim was white and the defendant is black. 
  • The most powerful argument against capital punishment is its error rate.  A month ago, a Pennsylvania man became the 122nd condemned prisoner released from a death row in the US based on new evidence of his innocence. 

Even without the potential pitfalls of an unfair or wrongful execution, the Wisconsin justice system is plagued by similar problems. 

Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate for African-Americans in the nation. 

Our justice system has also been found guilty of imprisoning the innocent.  Although he was recently charged with an unrelated and horrific crime, it is a fact that Steven Avery spent 18 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. 

These issues in our justice system need to be addressed before we ever consider joining those states that claim the moral authority to execute their prisoners.

Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa are among 12 states without capital punishment, while recent developments in neighboring Illinois also support Wisconsin’s death penalty prohibition.  

In 2000, then-Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois after the number of death row inmates exonerated, 13, exceeded the number executed, 12. 

Two years later, the Republican governor commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates, citing racial and poverty disparities as a primary factor in “what is shaping up to be one of the great civil rights struggles of our time.”

The Wisconsin legislature is the appropriate arena for a legitimate civil rights debate.  But it should never play host to a right-wing reunion using the death penalty as a political rally cry.    

For years, Democrats have endured the misplaced priorities of legislative leaders who fill the Assembly and Senate calendar with divisive campaign issues.  If they intend the death penalty to be the next backwards step in undoing Wisconsin’s legacy of civil rights progress, we will be prepared to stop them again.       

The stakes are too high in this political game.   


Lena C. Taylor is a first-term State Senator from the 4th District in Milwaukee and a member of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections and Privacy.

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