Legislature(1995 - 1996)
02/07/1996 01:30 PM Senate JUD
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 52 CAPITAL PUNISHMENT FOR MURDER SENATOR GREEN moved adoption of the committee substitute (9-LS0524- F) for SSSB 52. SENATOR ADAMS objected. He requested the term "capital punishment" be substituted with the term "death penalty" in the title to ensure the public understands what the issue is about. He also felt that rather than offer an advisory vote which would limit the answer to yes or no, the question be rephrased to offer a second option. Number 422 SENATOR ELLIS asked why the committee substitute dramatically changes the sponsor substitute. SENATOR TAYLOR replied the difficulty of attempting to address and pass legislation this year pertaining to capital punishment, given the complexity of other issues before the committee and considering time constraints, is unrealistic. He added that by giving the public the opportunity to vote on the issue now, the legislature will know whether or not to proceed with it. He stated he sincerely believes that most people understand the term "capital punishment" to be a death penalty, and that term was used only because it was the term used by legislative drafters. Number 447 SENATOR ADAMS felt the term is a technical change which could be made easily; and he requested a second option be contained in the advisory vote. He also requested a fiscal note from the Department of Corrections. He commented the State of California estimates each execution to cost $15 million, and the cost varies with other death penalty states. SENATOR TAYLOR stated a fiscal note would be requested upon adoption of the committee substitute. SENATOR ADAMS maintained his objection to adoption of the committee substitute. A roll call vote was taken with Senators Miller, Taylor and Green voting "yea," and Senators Adams and Ellis voting "nay." The motion carried. SENATOR TAYLOR announced to teleconference sites that copies of the committee substitute were distributed to those sites, and asked witnesses to direct their testimony to CSSSSB 52 (Jud). JIM MCCONUS, President of Alaskans Against the Death Penalty (AADP), testified in opposition to the measure. AADP began with 12 members in Anchorage two years ago; its current membership is over 650. AADP believes it is time for the legislature to take the responsible act of getting to the merits of the death penalty debate. He questioned why the advisory vote maneuver has been offered twice in three years on the day of the hearing. He expressed frustration that discussion about the merits of the death penalty is avoided. He made the following points. After a century of study and debate, there remains not one legitimate public policy which can be cited in support of the death penalty. It wastes millions of scarce dollars; it does not reduce murder rates, murder rates tend to be higher in states with a death penalty; its application is heavily effected by race and wealth; and innocent lives are lost because fatal mistakes are made. Supporters of the advisory vote will be able to affirm their desire for the death penalty without accepting the political accountability of casting a vote on its merits. He questioned why advisory votes are not used for other issues the legislature needs to address, such as tort reform, which the public is not fully informed about. MR. MCCONUS reviewed a chart before committee members. In 1993, 1,000 registered voters across the United States were interviewed. Most people favored life without parole and restitution (44%) over the death penalty. CSSSSB 52 (Jud) asks the voters the question "Do you favor the death penalty as another sentencing mechanism?" When phrased that way, the response rate has been 70 to 80 percent. By eliciting that response, a perceived public mandate will be put in motion, which is erroneous, since whenever any other alternative is offered, the mandate for the death penalty drops. If voters are asked whether or not they want the kind of sentence already imposed by Alaska courts for aggravated murders (life without parole and restitution) the death penalty loses every time. This question will not find out what the public thinks but will create a public mandate based on misconceptions. He cited statistics from polls in other states which all favored life in prison to the death penalty. If people are asked what should be done with people convicted of first degree murder, most people favor the sentence already imposed by Alaska courts. Passage of CSSSSB 52 (Jud) will prevent legislative deliberation and responsibility in the future. Number 542 FRANK SMITH testified from Barrow in opposition to CSSSSB 52 (Jud). The same arguments have been made repeatedly to the legislature. No first degree murderers are released within a short time period and reoffend. The advisory vote, as posed, will only elicit responses which proponents expect, to obtain the desired result. The sentencing structure needs to be examined but making it harsher is not the solution. Too many misconceptions exist, and innocent lives can be lost. DIANE SHRINER, representing the Division of Elections, spoke to the cost of placing an advisory vote on the November ballot. The figure of $2.2 thousand includes the cost of providing information in the official election pamphlet, as required by AS 15.58. The programming cost for counting votes cast on the measure is also included. Only four measures can be printed on a single ballot card. If the measure requires an additional ballot card, the cost would increase by $53.4 thousand. The official election pamphlet would include the ballot, the Legislative Affairs explanation of the measure, and a statement in support and in opposition of the measure. KEVIN MCCOY, testifying from Anchorage, felt this bill asks Alaskan voters to make a decision in a vacuum. The voters are not being informed of what this change will do to the state's burden of proof requirements in a criminal case, nor are they being told what the current sentencing structure is. A death penalty conviction makes it harder to convict those who truly have committed first degree murder. To demonstrate that current sentencing laws work, he named several infamous cases. For example, Louis Hastings killed six people in McCarthy; he was sentenced to 630 years in jail and will be eligible for parole after 210 years. Most citizens think murderers are released from prison in seven years. SCOTT STERLING, an attorney, testified in opposition to CSSSSB 52 (Jud) for the following reasons. It is hypocritical to punish heinous crimes by means of a heinous crime. Research throughout history does not confirm the claim that capital punishment is an effective general deterrent. Once inflicted, the death penalty's irreversibility prevents correction of those instances in which the criminal justice system convicts the wrong person. Research shows the death penalty is not applied in proportion to the seriousness of the crime. Death is imposed on a randomly selected subset of people convicted of capital offenses. Prosecutorial discretion, in charging and plea bargaining, virtually assures this randomness. The death penalty is far more frequently imposed on minorities than on whites. As a class, paroled murderers show lower recidivism rates for their crimes than do most classes of felons. This is tied to the sociological fact that most murders occur on a one-time or a crime of passion basis. Number 539 GINA TABACHKI testified from Fairbanks in opposition to CSSSSB 52 (Jud). She finds an advisory vote to be unreasonable and an abdication of legislative responsibility. She urged Senators to review the merits of the capital punishment bill rather than rely on measures like an advisory vote. She expressed her frustration that she had prepared testimony on the merits of the death penalty in response to SSSB 52, which was the measure scheduled. She questioned if the committee substitute was a deliberate attempt to avoid discussion on the merits of the issue. She felt it is unfair to citizens who try to use the existing process to express views. DAVID SEID, a public defender from Ketchikan, opposed CSSSSB 52(Jud), and agreed with Ms. Tabachki's testimony. He was informed and believed he would be addressing the merits of capital punishment. He also agreed with Mr. McConus' and Mr. McCoy's views. He urged the committee to remove the bill, and bring forward debate on the merits of capital punishment. Number 502 CHRISTINE REICHMAN testified from Valdez in opposition to CSSSSB 52 (Jud). She agreed with all previous witnesses. JUSTICE VIC CARLSON, retired 4th Judicial District Superior Court Judge, testified from Bethel. He expressed concern about putting a vote before the people without a full educational package. One of the issues that has not already been addressed is how the death penalty shifts the balance of power between the prosecution and the person on trial. When a person is on trial and may be facing capital punishment, the district attorney can offer to remove the capital punishment penalty which almost forces the defendant to accept the plea agreement of life imprisonment even if he/she did not commit the crime. He believes it is the responsibility of the legislature to engage in this discussion and educational process, and not just pass the issue to the public who cannot be expected to review it in depth. BOB KINTZELE, a legal investigator from Kenai, worked on death penalty cases in California which involved Alaska citizens and assured committee members the costs of such cases are extreme. He compared the capital punishment advisory vote to the capital move vote. He believes the public will need to know the costs associated with capital punishment. He estimated each case would cost $3-$5 million at a minimum. CHARLES ROHRBACHER, made the following comments on behalf of Amnesty International. Amnesty International works worldwide, without condition, for the release of all prisoners of conscience, for the fair and speedy trial of all prisoners, regardless of charge, and against all forms of torture and inhumane treatment of any prisoners, and for the abolition of the death penalty. He stated Amnesty International opposes any step, including an advisory vote, that advances the reinstatement of the death penalty in Alaska. The death penalty is morally wrong. No vote by a majority, anywhere, changes that fact. The death penalty is a human rights violation. CSSSSB 52 (Jud) contains no death penalty alternatives and does not inform voters of the potential cost of the death penalty versus life imprisonment. He provided committee members with a booklet, "Don't Kill for Us." Amnesty International believes the death penalty sends the wrong message. It involves the state in condoning cold, calculated taking of life. It legitimizes murder as a problem solving method. All western countries, except for the United States, have abolished the death penalty. It does not protect society, but has a brutalizing effect showing that life is cheap. It redirects the attention from the victim to the perpetrator. Countries that the U.S. has been highly critical of for human rights violations, such as El Salvador and South Africa, have in the last ten years either abolished or overturned their death penalties. Amnesty International focusses on people suffering from the arbitrary actions of government. Of major concern is that innocent people may be executed. There are 23 known innocent people who have been executed since 1923. Thomas Jefferson did not believe in having a death penalty until it was possible to demonstrate the infallibility of human judgments. Number 414 JOHN GALLANT, representing Amnesty International from Soldotna, read quotes from Camus and discussed his opposition to the measure based on religious tenets. He commented that in Alaska, religion is very dominant. He shared figures from a document compiled by Alaskans Against the Death Penalty (Jan., 1994). The cost of instituting the death penalty in Alaska will exceed $21 million in the first four years. Those figures were calculated using departmental fiscal notes. The figures are based on an average of six death penalty cases, however an average of 25 first degree murder cases are litigated per year. The cost of an execution is three times the amount it would cost to imprison a person in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years. He added the critical issue is the taking of human life, not the cost. Number 372 BARBARA HOOD, an Anchorage businesswoman and Amnesty International member, testified in opposition to the death penalty, and the advisory ballot because it forces voters into a deceptive choice. She noted the following myths about the death penalty: 1. the death penalty is less costly - studies show the death penalty is consistently more expensive; 2. the death penalty deters crime - no study can determine this to be true; 3. law enforcement agencies support the death penalty - in a 1995 poll of chiefs of police nationwide, two-thirds felt the death penalty is not an effective law enforcement tool; 4. victims' families demand the death penalty - some are the most ardent opponents to execution because they believe it to be a horrible memorial to a loved one; 5. race is not a factor - studies show race plays a significant role in who is executed - in Territorial Alaska, 75 percent of those executed were Alaska Natives or other minorities; 6. the death penalty is not arbitrary - last year the State of Texas executed a man after they discovered he had not committed the murder for which he was convicted; 7. no innocent lives are lost - our legal institutions are not perfect, just as human beings are not perfect. The advisory ballot will do nothing to change these misperceptions about the death penalty. WALTER [indisc.] read a statement for Charlotte Bashom, who represented the Central Alaska Friends Conference, a statewide conference of Quaker churches. [Because of poor transmission, that statement was not transcribed but is available in written form through the Senate Judiciary Committee.] Number 291 CHARLES CAMPBELL, past Director of the Division of Corrections, with 45 years of experience in the field of Corrections, stated he is unable to address the issue adequately in the time period provided. He stated the legislature is in the position to do an enormously good deed for the people of the state, by deciding to embark on a truly serious, objective, legitimate, authentic inquiry into what the death penalty is all about. He has absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the conclusion would be that to reintroduce the death penalty would be to go back on the wisdom of the territorial legislators and would be a devastating mistake. It would not serve the best interests of the state, would not reduce crime, and would bring about a great deal of capriciousness and unfairness. He would look forward to participating in a serious inquiry on the merits of the death penalty. JEROME ADAMS testified from Fairbanks in opposition to the death penalty for three reasons: innocent people are convicted; life is more important and more valuable than any state right; and economically it is illogical. He expressed concern that the public has not been adequately informed about this bill, and that more attention has been given to wolf control than the death penalty. ROBERT CROSSMAN, testified for the Anchorage Friends Meeting of the Quakers, in opposition to the death penalty. He agreed with previous arguments about the practical and public policy objections against the proposed bill. He believes that murder is wrong, and that taking human life is murder. The committee substitute is an attempt to evade responsibility for these objections. This bill provides the public with a one-sided issue, unsupported by fact, and gives the perception that by supporting the death penalty one will be taking a positive step toward the reduction of crime, when the opposite is true. Number 224 LIZ DODD, a state and national board member of the Alaska Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), opposed this revised approach to achieving state executions, just as the ACLU would not have supported a state initiative in 1964 in Arkansas to enforce segregation of schools. Tyranny by majority is tyranny nonetheless. It is a disservice to our democracy to put before the people a referendum that misleads by omission. In states with a death penalty, retribution is paid for out of the prevention fund. Executing people after they commit crimes will be done instead of stopping people before they commit the crimes. Trading retribution for prevention is not an exchange the people of Alaska would support if informed. The proposed language would not fully inform citizens of how this shifting of corrections funds will concretely harm them. Crime must be stopped at its origins. Every profile of every killer illuminates one factor: that person was the victim of neglect, abuse or brutality. The need to curb brutality and abuse in our culture is at the nucleus of crime prevention. Finally, everyone in this state has been victimized by some state error, whether because of human error or computer error. Capital punishment inevitably involves mistakes that once made, can never be corrected. Corrections are not made during the appeals process since appeals are expensive and are being curtailed. Executions are happening now at a fast pace, with limited appeals. One rule of government is that mistakes happen. The death penalty will only curtail the right of all Alaskans to live their lives free of the threat of state execution. Number 167 ARTHUR COUCH testified from Kenai in support of CSSSSB 52. He described a situation in which a murderer was not convicted, and questioned how justice was served. Number 145 BRANT MCGEE, representing himself, testified from Anchorage. His primary concern with the death penalty is with the costs, which are nearly exponential. The initial cost of reintroducing the death penalty will be $4 million but within two years the cost will double in order to process cases. The problem is that the cases do not go away. Currently most cases are finalized within one to two years, even with appeals. The national average for the time of conviction to the time of execution is almost ten years, therefore in Alaska, those cases would continue to be litigated on an ever more complex level of appellate review during that decade long period. If the legal system started out with six cases per year, there would be 12 cases in the second year, 18 in the third year, etc. At the end of ten years, before a single person has been executed, there would be 60 extraordinarily demanding cases. More than $50 million will be spent before the first person is executed. Voters must be fully informed of the complete cost over a ten year period prior to a vote on the reimposition of the death penalty. Number 085 SENATOR TAYLOR asked Mr. McGee to provide the committee with information on costs, especially in relation to the cost of the recent case in Florida where two German tourists were murdered and the convict plead out to a life imprisonment term. He discussed Judge Carlson's comments about the frightening leverage given to the legal system if the death penalty is imposed. In summary, he stated he was dismayed by the idea that it is more morally appropriate to sentence a person to life in prison and felt that sentence to be more torturous than the death penalty. Due to time constraints, no further testimony was taken. SENATOR TAYLOR asked that witnesses send written comments to the committee for distribution. The meeting was adjourned at 3:05 p.m.