Murder that made headlines shouldn’t be public case for death penalty

UNSIGNED EDITORIAL

St. Paul Pioneer Press © September 26, 2006

Minnesota doesn’t have a death penalty and, for various moral, ethical and economic reasons, we want to keep it that way. But along comes Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., the repeat sex offender dealt a death sentence Friday by a federal jury in Fargo for abducting and killing Dru Sjodin, and the circumstances and backstory had people on both sides of the debate staking claims to this case.

It’s easy to see the perfect storm of circumstance that, unlike the 120 other murders committed in Minnesota in 2003, rekindled the capital punishment talk. It started with the abduction of a beautiful college student during Thanksgiving week from a mall parking lot (“it could have been anyone”), the mystery of where she was and who took her, the massive search, the arrest of a Level 3 sex offender released just months earlier after spending 23 years in prison for attempting to abduct a woman from a sidewalk in Crookston. Rodriguez had previously served prison time for a 1974 sexual assault and was on probation for that crime when he tried to abduct the Crookston woman.

Rodriguez still had the marks of handcuffs around his wrists when Gov. Pawlenty called on the Minnesota legislature to pass a death penalty bill. We’ve since heard, largely through trial testimony on his behalf, of Rodriguez’s abuse as a child, of the poverty and racism that shaped his life and of the possible brain damage he suffered by growing up around farm chemicals. Human stories illustrate our views, and our reactions to these stories are natural springboards to debating, marketing and politicizing larger issues, but they shouldn’t camouflage our true motives.

Nobody wanted to ever see Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. on the street again, and the guilty verdict in his murder trial – even without the death sentence – ensured we wouldn’t. But if you believe in the merits and virtues of an eye-for-an-eye judicial and penal system, if you feel safer knowing Minnesota puts its convicted murderers to death, your activism shouldn’t hinge on the abduction and murder of a 22-year-old college student any more than it should on news of a drug dealer gunned down by a rival. Stripped of sensationalism, our higher principles should be able to stand on their own legs.

We believe individual states have the right to embrace capital punishment – Wisconsin voters are deciding in November whether to make their state the 39th in the nation to have a death penalty. But we don’t believe the State of Minnesota should be in the business of state-sponsored killing.

While a Gallup poll in May found 65 percent of Americans favor the concept of the death penalty even if it were proven capital punishment didn’t deter crime, 91 percent of Americans also believe innocent people have been sentenced to death. How do we, as individuals, rationalize and reconcile these conflicting beliefs?

The truth is, states sometimes kill the wrong person. Since the 1970s, according to the United States Department of Justice, more than 120 death row inmates have been exonerated of their capital crimes, and evidence has exonerated many others after their executions. That, alone, is enough to sway our view. Rodriguez’s guilt isn’t in question, but again, our convictions stand upon higher ground than any single case. If we, as a society, are morally opposed to murder, the blessing of a governor or president doesn’t absolve us of that moral standard. There are egregious racial disparities inherent in our judicial system – 98 percent of district attorneys in death penalty states are white, and blacks make up 42 percent of death row inmates.

From trial to execution, there are enormous costs associated with every death penalty case. In North Carolina, Duke University found it costs $2.16 million more to execute someone than to imprison him for life. According to the Palm Beach Post newspaper, Florida taxpayers spend $51 million every year to enforce the death penalty over the costs sentencing those same people to life without parole.

Also, a vast majority of the nation’s criminologists reject the notion that the threat of capital punishment deters people from murder. Many advocates for murder victims’ families say life sentences without the possibility of parole make the families feel safer and give them better senses of closure than waiting the 10 or 15 years, or longer, to wind through the appeals process of a death sentence. These findings and others can be found on the Web site for the Death Penalty Information Center (deathpenaltyinfo.org).

We’ll close with this, from “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,” developed by the Committee on Domestic Policy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
“Some ask whether those who commit the most heinous crimes or who are found guilty of repeated violence constitute the ‘rare’ occasions when the death penalty is appropriate. According to The Gospel of Life, the existence of a ‘rare’ occasion when the death penalty may be used is not determined by the gravity of the crime but by whether ‘it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.’ No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.”

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