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Why Alaska shouldn't reconsider death penalty

Scott Woodham
istockphoto

TO: The Alaska Legislature

SBJT: Ol' Sparky

Dear lawmakers,

Maybe you've been too busy reading reams of fresh, dense oil tax legislation to notice, but a grand jury has indicted Israel Keyes, the man authorities allege is responsible for the kidnapping, ransoming and, sadly, death of Samantha Koenig, the Anchorage barista who was found murdered. You may also not be aware that news of the charges filed against him triggered an avalanche of confusion about the death penalty in Alaska.

Since nearly all of you are facing re-election this November, we're concerned that some of you may be thinking it would make a good campaign issue -- or a good idea to bring up next session. It won't. Not even if your race gets desperate. Even though a heinous crime has just been committed and a suspect has been charged, Alaskans know -- especially lately -- that justice is elusive.

The federal government has filed several charges against Keyes, one of which is a capital offense. Prosecutors haven't announced whether or not they'll seek the death penalty, but many people are relieved that it is a possibility. Keyes doesn't deserve to live, say many online comments on Alaska news reports.

The commenters might be right. The crime against Koenig, her family, friends, the community of Anchorage, and even Alaska itself was heinous, surely the work of someone who gave up on decency. But Keyes hasn't been tried yet, and he has pleaded not guilty.

Many of the commenters wondered if Alaska has the death penalty. As a state, it hasn't. Ever. Many of them also wondered why not. That concerned us.

Remember 1957

In case any of you have forgotten, in 1957, two years before statehood, the death penalty was abolished in Alaska because of obvious injustice its application. During the territorial period, hundreds of people were convicted of offenses that qualified for a death sentence, the vast majority of them white. But non-whites were sentenced to death and executed at a far greater rate.

Accounts of their cases read like transcripts of the Salem witch trials, not case studies in awesome jurisprudence. “Prosecutorial misconduct” would be putting it lightly. And it wouldn't give credit to the role that inadequate defense played. According to historians and legal scholars, only eight people were put to death in Alaska between 1900 and 1957. Two of them were white, five Native, and one “Other.” He turned out to be from Montenegro, a small Balkan country.

Except for economics, there would have been four whites executed, five if you count one guy who escaped from jail and was killed by a homesteader standing his ground. Two sentenced to die but not executed by the territory were able to afford lawyers, appeals, and petitions to the president of the United States. They were both eventually spared the noose, and one was released altogether. After release from prison, he went on to become a successful businessman in Rochester, N.Y.

Non-white Alaskans sentenced to death weren't so fortunate. And it wasn't for lack of trying. Of the others sentenced to die in that era, four appealed for presidential clemency. None of them got it.

Death penalty more expensive

But times have changed, haven't they? It's 2012, after all, not 1947, and racial bias is arguably much weaker today than it was in the past. Luckily, there's current data; other states still execute convicts. A 1998 report to the American Bar Association stated that in 96 percent of states where there had been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern involving either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination. Sometimes both. Even a 2005 study of stereotypically liberal California found people convicted in capital cases with white victims were three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with black victims, and four times more likely than those with Hispanic or Latino victims.

There is also a great deal of evidence that sentencing someone to death is much more expensive than the alternatives. Studies of costs in California, Maryland, Kansas, Florida, North Carolina and Texas have shown that executions have cost states millions above what life imprisonment would have. Recently, Colorado found that it could fund an entire new unit of investigators with $1 million left over. Most of the extra costs are incurred in the lengthy court processes associated with death penalty cases, and they're not just borne by the public. With every appeal, every petition, the family and friends of victims must relive their agony and loss.

And there is always the danger of putting innocent people to death, which may even compound that suffering. Since 1973, 140 people sentenced to die have been exonerated or pardoned after new evidence was presented.

Alaskans should be very familiar these days with convictions being overturned after revelations of new or previously unavailable evidence. The very same government handling the prosecution of Israel Keyes handled the prosecution of former Alaska lawmakers charged with public corruption. Lately it has even been suggested that the former Sen. Ted Stevens might still be alive today if prosecutors hadn't made a royal mess of his public corruption case. We're not sure if murder by implication is punishable by death, but you might want to check with federal attorneys just in case.

'The Fairbanks Four'

Alaska lawmakers haven't been the only ones working to undo mistreatment at the hands of the courts. Recently Tanana Chiefs Conference has increased the reward it's offering –now $35,000-- for information leading to the exoneration of “The Fairbanks Four,” four Alaskans who have been imprisoned for murder since 1997 despite many people attesting their innocence.

Stevens and other legislators charged in the corruption probe weren't facing the noose, but Keyes might be. Yet the public started clamoring for Keyes' head as soon as the charges went public. The differences between the lawmakers and Keyes, their positions in life, their legal resources, their alleged crimes and victims, should be obvious. But justice should be blind.

Revenge might be easy, but justice is a different matter. All we The Concerned can hope for is a swift, spotless resolution to the case so that Samantha Koenig can rest in peace and those whose lives she touched can find solace.

Regrettably,

The Concerned