Any law enforcement officer can tell you that it takes many resources to keep a community safe. I was a law enforcement officer for over 30 years, 17 of them as a police chief. We needed good community partnerships; good processes to collect, store and share police activities and crime data; good equipment to protect and assist officers as they performed their duties and much more.
One tool virtually never seen on that list is the death penalty. Compared with all law enforcement tools, the death penalty is rarely needed.
Studies show the death penalty does nothing to deter crime or improve public safety, which is a fundamental piece of our mission. Among people who commit murder, weighing the consequences is not exactly a strength. Would-be murderers who might consider the consequences don’t care.
Awarding the death penalty ensures years, even decades, of painful appeals. Families awaiting justice have to live daily with the high probability that a death sentence will eventually be overturned or never carried out in their lifetimes.
Yet the death penalty continues to be a piece of our criminal justice system that our state spends millions on each year with no closure for families of victims.
Now, a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation shows the death penalty drains resources from the criminal justice system in ways most of us don’t even realize. The report looks at cases in which defendants were charged or prosecuted capitally but never convicted. By the death penalty’s mere existence, community pressure can force its pursuit when the strong evidence needed to convict may not be present.
No doubt, the threat of the death penalty has allowed successful plea bargains for sparing someone’s life. However, it has left many people unsettled – those who seek it administered for ultimate justice and those who have spent most of their lives on death row, only to be declared innocent when clearer and more convincing evidence was produced.
The most recent case of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, half-brothers who were exonerated 30 years after being sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, is evidence of a failed death penalty sentence, to the defendants, the victim’s family and the community.
Instead of relying on the threat of the death penalty to close cases, we should be devoting the resources necessary to make sure we find dangerous criminals quickly and put them behind bars for life, where they can no longer threaten our neighborhoods.
The death penalty is more of a distraction and little help to law enforcement in the broader mission. Let’s consider replacing it with life in prison without parole and develop a second degree murder sentence that gives prosecutors the tools to ensure those they serve that they can effectively remove and keep murderers off the street. Then, legislators can redirect these unproductively spent dollars to help the justice system with the day-to-day hard work of protecting people and their property – which is what I believed our mission to be during my 30-plus years as a law enforcement officer.
Gerald Galloway of Southern Pines is past president of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and a member of North Carolina Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty.