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An Analysis: The Illicit Prescription Drug Epidemic Just Keeps Getting Worse

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com
 
The following are a few of the true stories from the cinema verite of America’s Prescription Addiction already playing in real life near you. Half of Americans received at least one prescription in the last month, and almost three billion prescriptions for 100 billion pills were dispensed last year. Both numbers are on a steady increase.

Scene #1 – In the early morning hours the “patients” are lined up out the door and around the block of the suburban Detroit clinic.  Each has a well rehearsed set of subjective symptoms that will produce a scrip for Xanax, Vicodin or another drug that they can sell on the street. Muted cheers as the doctor pulls up in his expensive European sedan, gives them a friendly wave, and then enters the side door of the office. By noon he will have completed his “treatment” of those in the line, and he will retire to the doctors’ lounge at a nearby hospital where he can check his stocks on his laptop.

Scene #2 – The federal prosecutor and case agent view the latest day’s video of a court-authorized Title III from a camera inserted into another doctor’s office, this time in the inner city. The investigation had shown that no “patients” ever entered this office. The doctor enters the office and, using the list of names and drugs given to him by his assistant, proceeds to write out dozens of prescriptions for patients he never sees. What is striking to the prosecution team is that he always puts on his starched white coat and checks his appearance in the mirror before sitting at his desk to complete his task.

Scene #3 – Fourteen year old Sally digs through her parents’ medicine cabinet before leaving the house to join her friends. She thought there was some Valium left from last week but decides to settle for a few of these OxyContins her father had left over from some back surgery. A friend would bring some alcohol to share with the group. Her parents would receive a call later that night from the hospital emergency room where she had been taken after she went into seizure at the party.

Scene #4 – Max was a good student at the state university, but this semester’s course load was a ball-buster, and his performance on final exams next week would determine whether he would keep his scholarship for the rest of the year. Fortunately he had a buddy down the hall who had been diagnosed as ADHD and who would always slide him a few Adderall to boost his concentration level.

Scene #5 – Dr. Anderson gets a call as he is leaving the house with his family to see a Friday night movie. He has to take it because it is his turn to be on call. A desperate sounding patient of the clinic where he works is in a great deal of pain from a recent surgery. She needs a prescription for a pain killer called in to the pharmacy so that she can get through the weekend. Although he knows it will mess up the movie schedule, the doctor takes the time to check the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database and discovers that the patient has been getting the same pain pills from two other physicians and an emergency room in the last month. He refuses the request and makes a mental note to address the issue with her regular physician.

Like most things, along with the use comes the abuse. Over one-fifth of Americans have taken prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. One-quarter of high school students have abused them, a 33% increase in the last four years. Six of the ten most popular illegal drugs used by 12th graders were originally obtained by prescription, and half of them came from mom and dad’s medicine cabinet.

The epidemic of illicit prescription drug abuse continues to gain speed.  Its use exceeds the combined use of cocaine, heroin, and all inhalants. Marijuana is the only illegal drug used more than pharmaceuticals.

Drug overdose deaths exceeded automobile accident fatalities last year, and most of these (about 24,000) involved prescription drugs, especially addictive painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin.

Read more »

What We Can Do to Confront the Threat of New Designer Drugs from China

 This is the second in a two-part series.  To read the first part click here.
 
By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Part one of this report discussed the menace of a new generation of synthetic designer drugs from China causing a public health crisis in Europe. In America, in the last two years, enterprising rogue Chinese chemists have introduced hundreds of these new chemical combinations into the market.

This plague in America is steadily growing worse.  Law enforcement and medical experts believe that the tens of thousands of reported cases in hospitals in the last year are just the tip of the iceberg. These numbers have essentially doubled just in the last year. The rate of reporting by the agencies like DAWN, which records emergency room admissions, and NFLIS, which keeps track of law enforcement laboratory tests on drugs, is a bleak harbinger of things to come.

Unless aggressive action is taken, we can expect the same panic the British are experiencing from this onslaught. On a more optimistic note, there are positive steps that can be taken and virtually all individuals and groups can have a role in this defense. This part will outline a strategy which can meet this oncoming crisis.

Parents —– Since the victims are largely teenagers living at home, the first line of defense has to be the parents. At a minimum all parents of teens and pre-teens should have a frank and two-sided conversation to educate their children on the life-threatening effects of these drugs, which are deceptively packaged and marketed as a “legal high.”

Teens think they are immortal and the prospect of some exciting new forbidden experience can be irresistible. Information and misinformation about the synthetics are spread by friends and acquaintances, and the availability is cheap and accessible. Many of these new consumers are naïve about drugs in general, as well as their dangers.

A teenage boy in North Dakota is currently facing murder charges because he gave a single tablet of a synthetic drug to a friend. The friend died shortly after ingesting it at a party. The consequences of such single acts are beyond the comprehension of most teens.

Read more »

China Exporting Dangerous Designer Drugs for U.S. Teens


By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Cyber information is not the only thing the Chinese are stealing from the United States. A new generation of synthetic designer drugs is robbing the physical and mental health of thousands of American teenagers. In the last two years enterprising rogue Chinese chemists have introduced hundreds of these new chemical combinations into the American market.

Although the motive is crassly profit-oriented rather than something even more sinister, the effect is sadly the same. Emergency room admissions and law enforcement reports reveal a looming public health crisis unlike that caused by any preceding class of drugs.

And there is often little either group can do about it as they struggle to react to the problem.

A dizzying variety of medical and psychological problems are listed in recent reports.

A Hawaii man tried to throw his girlfriend off the 11th floor balcony of their apartment building.

A Kentucky woman threw her two-year old son from her car onto the highway because she believed him to be a demon.

A Mississippi man stabbed himself repeatedly in the abdomen with a hunting knife to remove wires he thought were inside his body.

The list of bizarre and tragic stories of behavior caused by the psychoactive drugs goes on and on and on.

Just when the public and law enforcement were beginning to grab a hold on the problems caused by cathinones (“bath salts”) and cannabinoids (“spice,” incorrectly referred to as synthetic marijuana), Chinese laboratories have unleashed modified chemical compounds beyond the practical and legal reach of all but the most sophisticated law enforcement authorities. The public, parents, and teachers, are almost completely unaware of the new drug problem that is unfolding. Medical professionals who treat these kids in hospitals are just becoming aware of the problem.

Drug analogues and chemical compounds altered to avoid enforcement are not a new phenomenon. Since heroin was made illegal in the 1920s, amoral profiteers have developed related and uncontrolled substances whose effects mimic, or even exceed, those of the illegal substance.

Efforts to modify illegal drugs are unwittingly assisted by legitimate, academic researchers studying psychoactive drugs for medical purposes who then publish the results of their research. A current example is a Purdue University professor studying the effect such compounds have on brain receptors in animals. His scientific publications are immediately co-opted by renegade chemists who use the knowledge to create new “legal” drugs to sell to their customers.

About a decade ago rogue chemists from China and elsewhere started using similar research to develop drugs such as bath salts and spice. The market developed in a generally westerly direction into Russia, then Europe, and finally to the United States.

These drugs were cheap. They were beyond law enforcement, and easily accessible through the internet. Middlemen wholesalers sold them in gas stations, convenience and liquor stores, and smoke shops. They were advertised as plant food, incense, and other purposes for which they had no actual utility. In fact, the substances have no legitimate medical or industrial application. For example, “bath salts” is just a street name and has nothing in common with those colorful little granules you put in your bathtub to make it bubbly. The sellers side-stepped even a misdemeanor FDA violation by printing “not for human consumption” on the brightly colored packaging–sometimes adding a cartoon character to appeal to youthful customers.

Read more »

The Story of 2 Dead Costa Rica Cops, the Drug Cartels and America’s Insatiable Appetite for Drugs

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

As he left for work on a January day this year, Police Officer Carlos Perez said goodbye to his wife and young children at their home in Limon, Costa Rica.

As law enforcement officers and their families across the globe, they faced the unspoken reality that it could be the last time they would have together. This day this reality came true.

Officer Perez and his partner, Jesus Garro, were motorcycle cops in Limon, and their assignment on that day was to apprehend four burglars who had ransacked a house, tied up its owner, and stole his truck filled with much of his personal property. The officers did find the criminals, shots were fired, and the stolen truck veered into them while they were standing next to their cycles, killing them both instantly. One of the officers managed to shoot and kill one of the culprits before the truck crushed him and his partner.

Two of Officer Perez’s relatives, who live in the US, were in Limon visiting at the time of the murders. After they read my column last week about drug trafficking in Honduras, we talked several times about their search to understand his death and what effect drug trafficking was having on their idyllic little country. I am grateful for their sharing with me this discourse at a time of family grief.

Ross Parker

Their unspoken question was whether American consumer demand for cocaine had been a direct or an indirect cause of this tragedy.

The answer, as with so many imponderables in the war against drugs, is that we may never know if there was a direct relationship between the increased Mexican drug cartel activity in Costa Rica and the men who killed the officers. There does, however, appear to be a reasonable likelihood of an indirect connection.

For several years the cartels have increasingly used Costa Rica as a transit point and storage and trading center for cocaine coming from South America and destined for the US. They commonly hire local criminals to assist the operation. These recruits frequently come to use the drug and need sources of illegal cash to support their habits. Burglary is a worldwide method to raise money for drugs.

Life in Costa Rica is much different than that for most Hondurans. As reported earlier, Honduras suffers from all of the ancillary effects of the combination of poverty and drug trafficking, overflowing prisons, unchecked criminal violence, official corruption, unstable governments, and rampant street crime by criminal gangs.

In contrast Costa Rica has managed to avoid the chaos of bloody coups and government instability. In 1949 Costa Rica abolished its army and used the money to promote social improvement. For half a century it has increasingly become a peaceful liberal democracy with a high standard of living and a thriving tourist industry. In 2009 the New Economic Foundation ranked Costa Rica as first in the world on its Happy Planet Index.

This health and happiness assessment is apparent among the people of Costa Rica. They enjoy a long life expectancy, a better health care system in many respects than that of the US, and a high literacy rate. A common response among friends to the question “how are you?” is “Pure Vida” or good life.

The question is whether the drug cartels’ efforts to satisfy their American customers is going to mess up the Good Life in this easy going paradise.

The one area that the Central American neighbors of Honduras and Costa Rica have in common is the unfortunate geography, in this respect, of occupying territory from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Anything traveling by land from South America to Mexico must cross the territorial bridge of each country. Today 80% of the cocaine coming from South America passes through these countries.

The increasing use of the cocaine highway from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, ultimately to the US, has meant that Mexican syndicates like the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel utilize both countries as trading centers. The effects on Honduras have been obvious and deadly.

The effect on Costa Rica has been more subtle but is equally troublesome to its citizens because of the peaceful equanimity they have enjoyed. But evidence of trafficking has become more and more apparent in the last two or three years. The lengthy coastlines and unguarded border crossings make drug enforcement a difficult challenge for the limited number of police in the country, only 11.000 officers with no military support. Even with recent increases the law enforcement budget for the country is less than most major US cities.

On the positive side the US, through DEA and the military, have established an effective partnership along with providing tens of millions of US dollars that have enabled Costa Rica to transform its law enforcement and criminal justice system with the help of  a$2 million satellite and radio communication station on the Pacific coast.

The Costa Rican government has responded to the challenge by taking an aggressive stand against drug activity and related crimes. Further proposals include new wiretap, extradition and forfeiture laws, as well as increased sentences and imprisonment statistics.

Some in the country fear that these efforts are negatively affecting the Good Life in Costa Rica. However, the power and resources of the cartels seem to have given the country few alternatives but to take this get-tough stance.

The President of Costa Rica has asked two things of the US:  Increase its support and cooperation for international drug enforcement, and step up its efforts to reduce consumption in the US. These appear to be reasonable requests.

The Perez children will grow up with the knowledge that their father was a hero who sacrificed his life to improve the lives of his countrymen. Like the families left behind by fallen American law enforcement officers, they deserve to know that their sacrifice came with the realization that a renewed commitment to drug enforcement both at home and abroad was in order in America.

 

America’s Drug Appetite Helps Make Honduras One of the Most Dangerous Places on the Globe

 
By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras —  I spent last week in Honduras with a couple dozen friends under the watchful and protective eye of a Honduran woman who has dedicated her life’s work to bettering the lives of the indigenous peasants of her country.

Despite State Department warnings we felt safe and welcome in the rural villages. The villagers were shyly courteous and grateful for any help to improve their living conditions. Their children were curious, achingly beautiful, and always up for any kind of fun activity which overcame the language barrier. They delighted in regularly beating me in lively rock-scissors-paper contests.

As in so many parts of the world today, individual Americans are well regarded here. The American government not so much. Many American NGOs, like Heifer, International and the Presbyterian Church, to name a couple, have made a real contribution in providing permanent housing, sustainable agriculture, education, and health care to the rural Mayans, whose lives have changed remarkably little in centuries.

On the flip side, Americans have played an important part in making Honduras one of the most dangerous places on the globe. It has the highest murder rate in the world. The city we flew into and out of, San Pedro Sula, is considered to be the most violent city in the world. Urban gang violence, overflowing prisons, robbery and kidnaping—all are endemic in this small country. Add to this the ancillary ills to which drug crime contributes—corruption, unstable governments, inadequate health care, and a weakened economy unable to cope with natural disasters like floods and earthquakes.

How is this, in part, the responsibility of Americans? Our insatiable cocaine habit has for decades produced the market demand fueling the multi-billion dollar export business from Colombia and Peru. With the success of U.S. law enforcement in maritime interdictions, the transit route has increasingly come through Central America to Mexico and then across our southern border. Transportation by the cartels now runs right through this relatively defenseless little country. The weak governments and overwhelmed law enforcement system are no match for the resources of the ruthless drug syndicates.

Honduras, which stretches from the Caribbean to the Pacific, is a battleground between the South American and Mexican drug cartels who violently confront each other in this neutral midpoint over territorial control and market share. Honduran bystanders become victims. All of this to get to the lucrative business of the American consumers.

We unintentionally contribute to the violence in Honduras in two other ways beyond our drug habit. Our relatively lax gun control laws make it easy for cartels to obtain in the United States assault rifles, ammunition, and other weapons to be used as deadly tools of the trade in Latin America. Not all firearms of course since civil wars have produced many left over weapons.

But enough to contribute substantially to the 40,000 Mexicans killed in the last six years. Also, our porous borders have permitted more than a million Hondurans to enter the United States. Substantial numbers have committed crimes, received a criminal education in American prisons, and then were deported back to their native country. They become drug organization recruits as well as violent criminals of opportunity.

In an era of budget tightening American politicians seem to be incrementally reducing support for international law enforcement, indeed for law enforcement in general. Statisticians point out that cocaine use is down and that drug sources have increasingly become domestic, such as meth manufacture, marijuana, and pharmaceutical drug diversion. Anyway, cocaine consumption is said to be relatively benign, victimless, a matter for education and regulation, not police and federal agents. Americans are said to have these Latin American drugs under control.

But ask Hondurans and Mexicans whether the American drug habit is benign for them. Or is it a voracious, self-obsessed monster into whose maw countless and random Latin American lives are sucked in and chewed up?

Perhaps the effect of cocaine consumption is just one symptom of the fact that few Americans give a damn about Central America. When told we were going to Honduras, most of my friends hardly knew where it was or anything about the country. But Hondurans are a proud and courageous people who deserve a safe and satisfying life as much as any American.

Through an interpreter I asked a young Honduran farmer what his hopes were for his daughter. “I dream that she will be able to get an education and live a happy, peaceful life in our village,” he replied.

I could not have stated more eloquently my dreams for my own daughter.

 

 

Could it Be Moderate Lead Exposure is a Primary Cause of Crime? Maybe

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Perhaps you, like me, have blithely assumed declining crime rates are due to some wonderfully fortunate combination of social factors.

Not so, says Kevin Drum in a fascinating, recent article in Mother Jones. Citing dozens of crime causality studies, he makes a provocative and convincing case that a generation of children’s exposure to lead has spiked violent crime far more than any other social factors.

The quadrupling of lead emissions into the atmosphere by leaded gasoline in the mid-20th century was followed, 20 years later, by a startlingly similar increase in the crime rate in the ‘60s through the ‘80s. Likewise, when the former declined after the Clean Air Act removed lead from gasoline, so did the latter in a statistical curve suggesting strong correlation, if not causation. Studies in other countries seem to reaffirm this hypothesis.

And Drum asserts that the remaining detritus of lead in the soil and the environment will continue to influence the crime rate until radical and expensive action is taken to remove it. These expenditures, however, will be more than offset by a multi-fold financial benefit in lower health and crime costs, he believes.

Much of the heavy lifting on this issue has been done by Amherst College Professor Jessica Wolpaw Reyes who compared Massachusetts kids’ 1990 lead exposure with their 2000 test scores and behavior problem records. She found even moderately elevated blood lead levels could be responsible for increased adult aggressiveness and violent criminal behavior. Reyes hypothesizes that it may also cause a tendency toward impulsive behavior, ADHD, substance abuse and a host of other social ills.

Unlike most of her colleagues, Professor Reyes writes with a minimum of unexplained geek-speak that is clear enough for even federal pensioners to understand.

Ah, when I think of all the times my case agents and I worked into the night on evidence when all we really needed was a simple blood test to present in court. All kidding aside, though, I would not be surprised if some imaginative defense attorney used high-lead blood levels as defense in a criminal trial — no doubt more plausible than Twinkies, particularly in the sentencing phase of a capital trial.

Drum’s article has stirred up a you-know-what storm of debate among economists and statisticians regarding the methodological validity of the studies he relied upon. An even more contentious wrangling has ensued in response to his clarion call for the U.S. to spend $400 billion in the next two decades to eliminate lead from the environment.

This storm of articles, blogs and essays tosses about terminology such as meta-analysis, regression methods and cohort studies and has generated a feeding frenzy in the many fields involved — neurologists, economists, statisticians, and public health experts. The flurry of debate over the fine points of statistical method and points far finer still seems to obscure the common sense reaction to Drum’s article and Professor Reyes’ studies to the point of immobilizing appropriate response.

Amid the semantic sorties, however, there has not been a single comment by the profession whose job it is to protect the public from crime — law enforcement. Not only are we are not on the sidelines in this contest, we aren’t even in the stadium.

Perhaps we are down the street in some sports bar casually watching others toss this ball around.

Maybe the lead/crime correlation is not causation. Maybe the decline in crime is permanent. Personally, I doubt both propositions. The studies on the effects of even low levels of lead exposure on kids’ sensitive brains seem convincing enough to justify a much higher priority for researching the issue.

Crime and the causes of crime will continue to be a defining issue in this country for generations to come and the lead/crime debate demands more than scientific research alone can deliver. We must broaden the discussion to include a larger perspective, especially from law enforcement leaders.

Why shouldn’t a Presidential commission be convened with representatives from a wide range of disciplines to take a comprehensive and meaningful look at the relationship between the present lead levels in the environment and future criminal activity?

The issue is too important for law enforcement to take a sideline seat, watching while scientists and statisticians parse it to death. Law enforcement needs to assume a leadership role in analyzing and coordinating the views of other disciplines, injecting a healthy dose of real world common sense into the debate.

Perhaps we can make the issue so understandable it can even be understood by moronic politicians. After all, the prevention of crime is our bailiwick — and our responsibility.

 

Simply Put, The Death Penalty Costs Too Much

Second of a two part series.
 
 
By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Stan Garnett, the District Attorney in Boulder, recently told the people of Colorado that, although he was not morally or philosophically opposed to the death penalty, he had simply concluded that it was too expensive, time consuming, and subject to random application. As reported in Colorado’s Daily Camera, he said that he found it to be impractical and of limited law enforcement relevance.

A recent death verdict had cost the state $18 million to fund its appeals. The budget of the county prosecutor’s office is $4.6 million a year, and he had 1,900 other felonies to prosecute. Boulder County has not executed anyone in the 140 years since statehood.

Damon Thibodeaux had confessed after a nine-hour interrogation to raping and killing his 14-year old cousin. He later recanted the confession but was convicted and sentenced to death in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He spent 15 years on Death Row in Angola Prison. In September of this year, after a five-year investigation in which the District Attorney cooperated fully, including DNA evidence, his conviction was set aside and he was released a free man. Capital defense experts claim that 140 other Death Row prisoners have been exonerated since 1973, 18 by DNA.

These two factors—financial burden and fear of executing an innocent person—are defining the terms of the current debate on the death penalty. Few such discussions seriously mention factors formerly considered crucial—morality, religion, deterrence, racial discrimination, except in passing. Nor do other seemingly important matters such as random unfairness, mental illness of offenders, logistical problems with the humane administration of lethal injection drugs, seem to affect the great majority of the populace or political decision makers very much.

Whatever the nature of the debate, the trend is clear. Five states in the last five years have ended capital punishment. Twenty-nine states have not conducted an execution in over five years, twenty-three in over ten years. There were 224 death sentences and 85 executions in 1985 compared to 78 death sentences and 43 executions in 2012.

Thirty-three states still have the death penalty but few use it. Three-fourths of the executions in the U.S. in 2012 took place in just four states: Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arizona.

Even a conservative Supreme Court has whittled away at the scope of permissible candidates for the death penalty by eliminating broad categories: Cohen-1977 (rape not resulting in death); Emmund-1982 (minor participants who do not kill or attempt to kill); Ford-1986 (insane persons); Thompson-1988 (juveniles 15 and under at the time of the crime); Atkins-2002 (mentally retarded); Roper-2005 (under 18 at the time of the crime); Kennedy-2008 (victim’s life is not taken).

For voters, however, constitutional issues have little sway. By far, the most important consideration is simply that capital punishment costs too much. The budget pressures and burgeoning costs faced by state and local government, especially in a time of economic uncertainty, are leading to a reconsideration of a host of subjects previously thought to be politically untouchable—mandatory minimum sentencing, law enforcement expenses, police on the street, and state corrections systems. Get tough on crime has given away to what can we cut out of the budget.

Repeated studies and estimates have concluded that capital prosecution costs have skyrocketed: Maryland ($37 million in overall costs for each execution since 1978, $3 million for each prosecution); Florida ($3.2 million per case); Texas ($2.3 million per case); Utah ($1.6 million). Federal capital cases are said to cost eight times the cost of non-capital murder cases.

With the highest number of prisoners on Death Row, California’s example is illustrative. The state has spent approximately $ 208 million in overall costs for every execution administered. It currently costs about $100,000 per year per prisoner on Death Row.

Despite these expenditures, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court estimates that it will be over three years before problems relating to lethal injections can be resolved in the courts sufficiently to permit executions. About 1 % of the death sentences imposed in the last thirty years have resulted in an execution. Capital punishment in California, which has almost a fourth of all prisoners on Death Row, appears to be an irremediable mess.

There is one voice of counter-argument to the growing momentum on the cost issue. Dudley Sharp, Resource Director of Justice For All, has written and spoken prolifically that these cost studies are flawed and that capital case costs could be brought to an acceptable level. His forceful essays are easily accessible on the internet and are worth reading.

Although I respect his analysis, my problem with Mr. Sharp’s position comes primarily from working next to four of the best and brightest trial and appellate prosecutors I have met. Each investigated and prosecuted capital cases and devoted enormous amounts of time and energy. None resulted in a death verdict, but in the zero sum game of prosecutors the cases kept them from pursuing other proactive cases. The prosecutions also consumed a huge amount of time and resources of investigators, defense attorneys, judges, and court staff at every stage of the case, investigation, pre-trial, trial, and appeals. I cannot conclude that these costs are comparable to non-capital prosecutions.

Moreover, it appears to me that the studies seem to leave out some expenditures and costs to society, particularly intangible, difficult to quantify ones. Perhaps more importantly, regardless of whether these costs could be contained, local governments increasingly believe that their escalation is exorbitant and inevitable. This perception is driving the momentum. Even Mr. Sharp’s hometown of Houston, once called the democratic capital of capital punishment in the world, is slowly decreasing its use.

The other factor affecting the debate on capital punishment is the waning confidence that no state will execute an innocent defendant. Since 1980 DNA tests have exonerated about 300 felony prisoners, many of whom had already served lengthy prison sentences. This development has led to some public questioning of the assumption that our multi-layered system of constitutional protections guarantees truthful verdicts and just sentences. Instead some criminologists believe that from 1-3% of those in prison did not commit the offense of which they were convicted.

Professor Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan estimates that the conviction error rate in capital cases since 1990 is between 2.5 and 4 %. Professor John Blume of Cornell Law School conducted a study that concluded that 88% of the executed defendants who “volunteered” by terminating their appeals were either mentally ill or had a serious substance abuse problems.

Other experts consider these figures to exaggerate the problem, and some earlier studies dispute the assertion that the legally exonerated were factually innocent. However, to a person on the street, the small but nagging uncertainty about the state taking the life of an innocent person is increasingly adding to the tipping point in the decision about the death penalty.

The United States ranks fifth in the number of executions imposed, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Nice club to be a member of. No other G7 nation permits capital punishment. To these latter countries the evolution of justice has made punishment by death a barbaric anachronism.

On many of these factors and sub-questions in the debate, I think that reasonable minds can differ, and I respect the contrary views of others, particularly former law enforcement colleagues, who still cling to the propriety of the death penalty. It is not an unreasonable conclusion that, from a policy and moral perspective, capital punishment is an appropriate sanction in the most extreme cases.

Just so the record is clear, however, my personal view is that the death penalty in the 21st Century is morally wrong in a civilized society; that it can be freakishly wanton in its selection of people to execute; that its unforgiving finality strains the entire criminal justice system; that it provides precious little or no deterrence to craven impulsive murderers; and that there continues to be a possibility of a botched and inhumane administration of the instrument of death.

Yes, and that in a perfect storm of unlucky factors, a poorly represented, especially African American charged with killing a white victim, in a rural county of the South particularly but not exclusively, faces a real risk of being convicted and executed, even though he is an innocent man. A real enough risk to convince him to plead guilty to life imprisonment to something he didn’t do.

If I ever move to Texas, that should be enough to convince some trial prosecutor to use one of his peremptory challenges to keep me off of a capital jury.

Regardless of our disagreements on these different aspects of the debate, I believe that an increasing number of people, including law enforcement folks, are coming to the conclusion that the exorbitant costs of the death penalty do not represent a wise use of the scarce resources devoted to investigating and prosecuting crime.

And that reason, if for no other, should be enough to end the death penalty in America.

Read Part 1

 

 

 

 

The Agonizing Death of the Death Penalty in America

This is the first of two parts.
 
 
By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Stephen Simmons slowly walked up the steps to the scaffold in Library Park in Detroit. It was September 24, 1830, his last day on Earth, and he looked out at the festive crowd of 2,000 celebrating spectators.

Men had brought their wives and children, there were refreshment booths, and a military band played a lively tune.

A local tavern owner, Simmons was a pleasant enough guy while he was sober but a demon when he was drunk. One night a month earlier, in a drunken rage, he had strangled his wife Livana when she refused to drink with him.

The crowd quieted as he stepped up to the gallows. In his last words he made a heartfelt confession about his crime and the evils of liquor.

The holiday mood evaporated as he sang a Christian hymn. Then the noose was placed around his neck and he dropped to his death. Public enthusiasm for the death penalty plummeted in the Michigan territory.

Seven years later, across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, Patrick Fitzpatrick was hanged for murder despite his protests of innocence. A few months later, another man made a deathbed confession that he, not Fitzpatrick, had committed the murder.

When the Michigan legislature considered the issue of capital punishment in 1846, these two factors—the public’s moral repugnance of the death penalty and the fear of executing an innocent man—convinced them to abolish capital punishment for murder. The state was the first English-speaking government in the world to abolish the death penalty.

 

The Simmons hanging in Michigan had defined the capital punishment debate not only in the state but, to some extent, for the rest of the country, in moral and religious terms.

Was the death penalty morally justified as a just retribution for the taking of a life? Did the Bible authorize it or forbid it as a penalty option in the most heinous cases?

Michigan and a handful of states rejected the ultimate punishment, but the overwhelming majority of states embraced the death penalty as morally justified and ordained by God as “an eye of an eye.”

There were other great historical causes in 19th early 20th Century America that were also vigorously debated primarily in terms of morality—temperance, women’s suffrage, and the abolition of slavery. While both sides of each of these issues raged on for decades without a resolution, ultimately it was the pragmatism of economics and politics which settled them, not so much morality. For a growing majority, the country’s future simply could not proceed with unenforceable and corrupting Prohibition and the marginalization of large parts of the population.

Similarly, the future of the death penalty is being decided in terms of economics—taxpayer dollars and cents. Slowly, incrementally, the death penalty is dying in America. Not because most people believe that the worst offenders do not deserve the most severe sanction. Nor has the debate over the efficacy of the penalty produced anything definitive. Studies on both sides of the issue claim to prove that the death penalty either does or does not deter others from committing the worst forms of murder.

Not only are these previously debate-defining terms not coming to any resolution, they are slowly being moved to the role of afterthought. Few people even talk about deterrence and moral justification any more. Instead what little debate that is occurring focuses on questions like: can local prosecutors’ offices afford death penalty litigation? Can the death penalty be administered in a humane and botch-free manner? In a post-DNA world can we guarantee that no innocent person will be executed?

More than any other factor, the future of the death penalty is being determined by the growing sentiment that we simply cannot afford it. Even though a majority of Americans probably continue to believe that capital punishment is justified for the mass murderers we hear about on the news with disturbing regularity, they are no longer willing to pay the increasing price. Just as likely, pragmatic considerations in an era of economic insecurity affect those moral decisions on whether as a society we need capital punishment.

Next week this column will explore this downward trend in the use of the death penalty and discuss one ex-prosecutor’s view on where it is heading—the death of the death penalty in America.