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Reflections on Connecticut from David Kaczynski

EJUSA has had the privilege of working with David Kaczynski for almost ten years as part of his work with New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. David is a national figure because of his role in turning in his brother, Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber.

But behind that sensationalized news story is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. After New York ended the death penalty, NYADP retooled to ask the question, "With the death penalty out of the way, what do we imagine for our criminal justice system? What can justice really be about?" NYADP brought stakeholders from all areas of the criminal justice system - victims and their advocates, families of the incarcerated, law enforcement, mental health professionals - to find common ground and work together to reduce violence and build a new paradigm for criminal justice.

I am proud that EJUSA has been part of that work, because the end of the death penalty is not an end to injustice. It is merely an opportunity to build a criminal justice system that truly works, not just for a few, but for everyone.

Below are David's poignant reflections on the repeal of the death penalty in Connecticut, including - about two thirds into the story - his personal visit with one of the key votes in the Connecticut Senate, Edith Prague.

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Connecticut Repeal
by David Kaczynski

New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and now Connecticut – all states that have abolished the death penalty over the last five years. If anyone thinks this is not a trend, then listen to the following message from my friend Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service:

“Texas is a ‘whole ‘nother country,’ as Texans are wont to say about themselves, but those of us laboring in its capital killing fields have a sense of hope. So far this year, we have only two new death sentences, and THREE capital cases that went to trial with death-qualified juries and ended with less-than-death verdicts. It is a rare year in Texas when the prosecution is at way less than 80 percent in getting death verdicts at trial.”

In fact, Texas death sentences are way down since the early 2000′s when the state legislature instituted a sentence of life without parole for juries to consider as an alternative to the death penalty.

Support for the death penalty is primarily emotional whereas opposition to the death penalty is both moral and rational. As voters and capital juries learn more about problems with the death penalty, their emotional adherence to it has weakened to a point that politicians are willing to touch what was once said to be “the third rail” of American politics, and juries are increasingly reluctant to impose it.

Knowledgeable, principled supporters of the death penalty no longer make the argument that it is a cost-effective, proven deterrent to violent crime. For instance, Texas for all its executions has a higher murder rate than most states that don’t have the death penalty. What principled supporters insist on is that some murderers deserve to be put to death for their crimes. They see the death penalty as justice, pure and simple.

But many philosophical supporters of capital punishment have come around to the abolitionist side in recent years because they could not swallow the huge problems that beset the capital punishment system. To wit: too many innocent people (141) have been sentenced to death, and the punishment has been handed out in an arbitrary and often biased manner. In effect, it turns out that “ultimate justice” is often not justice at all. As a country, we have executed some people who are innocent, quite a few people who might have been innocent, and hundreds of mostly poor people who would be serving life sentences except for the fact that their lawyers (not their crimes) were among “the worst of the worst.”

The clinching argument in recent years has been about something else: money. California, with the nation’s largest death row, has executed only 13 people in the modern era at a cost exceeding 4 billion dollars! If death penalty proponents in California (and most other states with the death penalty) truly cared about fighting crime, they would not support wasting scarce public resources on an inefficient, flawed death penalty system. They would be fighting to free up that money to spend it on the kind of violence prevention programs that NYADP has been promoting since the death penalty ended in New York.

Three weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting with CT state senator Edith Prague, who played a key role in scuttling the state’s repeal bill in 2011. I have never felt so intently listened to by anyone. When she finally spoke, Senator Prague told me that her vote on the death penalty ranked with the most difficult decisions of her life. Some crimes, she said, are so horrible that you want to blot out their very memory as well as the existence of those who committed them. She had in mind the rape and killing of a mother and two children in a home invasion perpetrated by two paroled felons. On the other hand, she asked herself, “Should our government be in the business of killing people?” and “What kind of a world do we envision for our children and grandchildren?”

In the end, Sen. Prague, at 86, opted for a world where violence doesn’t have the last word. She changed her mind and her vote in 2012 – and I can guarantee you that her vote to repeal the death penalty was a vote of conscience that had nothing to do with politics.

Of course I wrote her a thank you note. But she received a more meaningful thank you note from my friend Janice Grieshaber Geddes, whose daughter Jenna Grieshaber was murdered in a home invasion by a paroled felon in Albany, NY. Janice’s message was the same as mine: Repealing the death penalty isn’t the end, it’s just a beginning. Now let’s invest our money and energy and moral sense where they can really do some good: by addressing the root causes of crime; by organizing the communities where we live to reduce the violence that diminishes us all.

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