Forums Question: The Exonerated


The Honorable Larry L. Eger, Public Defender of the 12th Judicial Court and Former Sub-Committee Leader posed this question for this year’s online discussion. Read his bio by clicking here.

The Question

On average it costs approximately 1.3 million dollars to incarcerate a defendant for life. Cost estimates range from 5 to 20 million dollars to execute a man or woman.   Given the comparison, what do we get for the hundreds of millions of dollars we have invested in the death penalty?

The Response

Seth Miller

Seth Miller, Executive Director of Innocence Project of Florida. Read his bio by clicking here

I can’t identify any value added by executing someone who we can alternatively punish with the entirety of their life in prison, no exceptions. This is especially so where (1) the availability of the death penalty has no apparent deterrent effect on future crime, (2) it costs so much more to try those case and those sent to death row have a right to counsel through the entirety of their incarceration on death row, which increases the cost to citizens, (3) it takes so long for the legal process to wend its way through the labyrinthine legal process and so few people are even executed, which means that citizens are paying that increased money to sentence someone to a de facto life without parole sentence, and (4) the uncertainty and length of the process undermines another stated purpose of the death penalty, which is to provide closure to surviving families of victims.

Death penalty zealots would likely respond to this by arguing “let’s speed it up then and execute people faster.” But doing so increases the likelihood of executing innocent individuals. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been more than 2,000 wrongfully convicted people who were later exonerated since 1989. 156 of those individuals were proven innocent and exonerated from death rows in 26 states and Florida leads the nation with 26 death row exonerations. Haste makes waste. The very reason we give folks on death row lawyers throughout their incarceration, more money for investigators, experts and mitigation specialists, and more legal process, is because a death sentence is irreparable. You can’t “unexecute” an innocent person. Thus, given that there is no ascertainable value added by executing someone over putting them in prison for their entire life with no chance of getting out, it makes little sense hurry up to execute more people, when the already substantial risk of wrongfully convicting and executing an innocent person will only be increased through our haste.


Dale S. Recinella

Dale S. Recinella, Author of Now I Walk on Death Row. Read his bio by clicking here.

While experts may argue over how much more it costs to execute people than to keep them in prison, there is no dispute that executions cost much more than life in prison—even at the highest level of security. What does the public get for this extra money? It buys us worse than nothing.

A neutral result would just be wasted money. But the death penalty’s effect on our society is much worse than neutral. Our politicians have inculcated us with the death penalty lie, a fantasy that benefits only them. This fantasy death penalty kills neatly and quietly without horrendous botched executions. It causes no harm to the innocent family of the condemned or to the staff and officers who must kill as part of their job. The death penalty lie even promises that families of murder victims will experience healing from watching the state commit a legal homicide — the killing of the offender. This mythical death penalty is not biased by race or wealth, only convicts the guilty, only attaches to the worst of the worst, only costs a fraction of life imprisonment, only … only it does not exist.

The facts of the real death penalty, the one we actually have, are not ambiguous. It is horribly skewed based on race and wealth, the latter translating to quality of legal representation at the initial trial. Meanwhile, the cost for the massive government program called capital punishment is mind-boggling. Reasoned analysis indicates that most of the higher cost is spent on the state side for lawyers and their assistants. It is called living off the pipeline of death penalty cases.

My experience from ground zero of the death house is that the death penalty hurts and harms everyone it touches. So, who is the killing for? My best guess is it’s for the benefit of the politicians who pander revenge and state homicide to curry deceived voters.

Rabbi Simon Howard

Rabbi Howard Simon, Vice President of the Sarasota Ministerial Association. Read his bio by clicking here.

When Jews gather together and wish to toast one another, what do they say?  The answer is “to life, to life, l’chaim.”  For the Jew life is everything.  Life is God’s gift to us and we are to make the most of it.  We are to care for one another, look out for those in need, being kind to the stranger.  Seek good, not evil that you may live, that is the maxim.   The emphasis in Judaism is on life and how we live it.  The question arises what about the person whose acts are contrary to what is best for oneself and the community he/she resides?   Is this person not to be punished?  Judaism recognizes there are those who commit acts that break the laws of our land.  Should these people be put to death for their crimes?  The prophet Ezekiel said it best when describing what God wants from human beings.  “Cast away all transgressions by which you have offended, and get yourself a new heart and a new spirit, that you may not die.  It is not my desire that anyone shall die, declares the Lord God.  Repent therefore and live.” Ezekiel 18:31-32.

How then are we to live our lives so that all of us, the righteous, the sinner, the doer of good, the doer of evil find the right path to follow?  The book of Deuteronomy provides the answer:  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day:  I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse—choose life that you may live.” Deuteronomy 30:19.

When the courts of our nation face the decision of life or death for the defendant standing before the bar of justice Judaism calls upon them to “choose life that you may live.”