Death Penalty

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There have been a couple of high-profile cases involving the death sentence in Arizona recently, with one woman being released after 22 years on death row and another woman escaping the death sentence. Hear from both sides on the issue of the death penalty with Maricopa County attorney Bill Montgomery and Dan Peitzmeyer, president of the group, Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona.



Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," a couple of high-profile local cases involving the death penalty have reignited the debate on capital punishment.

Ted Simons: And we'll hear about national legislation that could end federal crackdowns on state-approved medical marijuana programs. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

"Arizona Horizon" is made possible from contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Arizona's jobless rate took another dip in march, falling 0.3%. That puts the state's unemployment rate at 6.2%. It's a move in the right direction, but it's still higher than the national average of 5.5%. The state department of administration says Arizona gained 5,600 non-farm jobs last month, with over half of employment sectors gaining workers, most notably in leisure and hospitality, along with education and health services.

Ted Simons: Debra Milke was recently released from Arizona's death row after a court overturned her conviction in the murder of her son. And convicted murderer Jodi Arias escaped the death penalty after a lone juror held out against a death sentence. Those two cases have recharged arguments for and against capital punishment. Here to discuss the death penalty from both sides are Maricopa county attorney Bill Montgomery and Dan Pites-Meyer of Death Penalty Alternatives For Arizona. Good to have you both here, thanks for joining us. Bill, we'll start with you. The death penalty. Why is it good for Arizona, why is it good for society?

Bill Montgomery: Well, those are the right questions to ask too, ted. And that then justifies continued dialogue and conversations about it, as well. But I would say that the death penalty continues to represent a just punishment for that narrow class of homicides that call for the most severe sanction that the state can impose. The two cases that are arousing the more current conversation couldn't be different in kind, though. The first case is such a gross tragedy when it comes to the justice system actually doing its job that it's one where it is so unique that it really shouldn't be part of the debate. The arias case, our criminal justice system as imperfect as it may be is the best system that we have and she received her due process rights throughout and if it was one juror that held out, it was one juror that held out but she received the defense that anybody in her situation regarding the charges would have received, regardless of position of influence or wealth.

Ted Simons: As far as the death penalty is concerned, why is this not good for society?

Dan Peitzmeyer: Well, I think it's a poor public policy, ted. I think there's a number of factors that come into play. First and foremost is innocence. We've had 152 people exonerated in the last 30 something years. 152 people exonerated, approximately 1407 executed. If you do the math on that, it looks like of the people who could have been executed, 10% were exonerated. If you had a chance of landing safely nine out of 10 times when you flew, you wouldn't fly. So my point is we are fallible human beings and we make mistakes. And I know of three people who have been innocent and yet executed. Judge scalia said if there was any innocent people executed, we would be screaming it from the roof. Well, I could scream Cameron Todd Willingham out of Texas or Juan deluna out of Texas, most probably troy Davis. I'm not aware of any here in Arizona but innocence is one factor.

Ted Simons: How do you respond?

Bill Montgomery: The very system that resulted in the review that exonerated 152 people is a result of DNA that was utilized is proof that our system does work. And the very science that was used to identify those people being innocent is the very science that's being used to convict people today. If it's good enough to say someone is innocent, it's good enough to say someone's guilty.

Ted Simons: Respond, please.

Dan Peitzmeyer: I wouldn't argue to the DNA but I don't believe that all 152 of those exonerations are DNA based. I think some are jail house snitches and witness misidentifications, I think there's a number of different factors that come into play there.

Ted Simons: If there is a remote chance that someone who is innocent is put to death, is it still worth keeping the death penalty?

Bill Montgomery: Well, the question is do we have a system in which we can have confidence that if someone were actually innocent, that we would be able to review it and identify that so the punishment wouldn't be carried out? And I think we do have that system. I think whether or not the three people identifies are actually innocent is still open to argument. Of the 152 people who were exonerated, that actually was the DNA. There's a larger number that the innocence project and the death penalty information center might claim were exonerated but those are circumstances that are identified where there may have been questions 30 years later about witness memory or lineup identifications or that sort of thing. I'll accept the 152. It may be 155. The point being that they were exonerated within the same criminal justice system and again, the steps and processes used to exonerate them are what we're using in investigations and prosecutions today.

Ted Simons: If the system works to that degree, does the system work?

Dan Peitzmeyer: The system does not work. Justice blackman stated that I am giving up on the experiment of the death penalty. Now, he made this statement, was it 1972 or 73? With furman.

Bill Montgomery: Around that time frame, yeah.

Dan Peitzmeyer: And that's when we put a hiatus on capital punishment. After the states tweaked their laws, it was reinstated in '76 and it's to be done for the most heinous and egregious of crimes. At that time, they figured about 2% of the crimes would qualify. Right now, I believe Mr. Montgomery has 62 cases here in Maricopa county where they're seeking capital punishment and I know for a fact since I've been involved in this and participating in clemency hearings and I see who we execute, we don't execute the worst of the worst. We execute the poorest of the worst, we execute the least educated of the worst, we execute those who have poor legal representation.

Bill Montgomery: I don't accept that as a legitimate or objective criticism of the criminal justice system. Those may be factors that resulted in the underlying criminal factor in the first place but there certainly is no review of cases where we're looking at any of those circumstances as criteria, whether to impose the death penalty. It is solely focused on the nature of the crime, the criminal history of those involved and other objective metrics that allow us to look at the width and breadth of cases to determine which of those are cases we should seek capital punishment in. We average about over the last several years about 300 murders each year in Maricopa county and out of that each year we're averaging about 20 cases in which we're seeking the death penalty. And even out of those, if there's additional information that arises over the course of that prosecution that calls into question that original decision, I'm open to reviewing those cases to determine if we should continue to pursue it. So ultimately, I believe that we are seeking capital punishment with the worst of the worst.

Ted Simons: The idea from the first question I asked the county attorney that this is a just punishment. Is he wrong?

Dan Peitzmeyer: I believe he is. And bill and I have we've discussed that on occasion. But I would like to point out one thing that I do think we agree on and that is we want you and your position, you're going to fulfill the law, you're going to act to fill out the law and I don't have any objections to following the law. I just want to change the law, you know. I don't think that we get much bang for our buck in the way of death penalties. I think it does more harm, it does very little good, it does a great deal more harm.

Ted Simons: But in terms of just straight punishment, forget deterrent, that debate has come and gone it seems like or it can continue forever for that one but just in straight punishment and as a just response to punish people who commit these heinous crimes, why would the death penalty not make sense? 64% of Americans in a 2010 poll say it does make sense to them.

Dan Peitzmeyer: And I understand that. But 53% of the countries in the world say it doesn't make sense. If you are known by the company you keep, which is something my mother always told me then I look at what company do we keep? China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, these are the countries that execute. We have been number five in executions in the past four years. And isn't that the same group of people that president bush referred to as the axis of evil?

Ted Simons: How do you respond to the fact that the most violent countries in the world have a death penalty and that countries with no death penalty seem to have fewer violent crimes?

Bill Montgomery: Well, I think in trying to lump us in with those other countries we don't execute people for political reasons. We don't execute people because they steal or they commit adultery, either. So that's not a fair characterization to lump us in with those other countries. In terms of some of the other western countries, first off, they've got their own issues with abortion and euthanasia that's different than the United States, as well. I'm not going to look at them as mire moral north star but in terms of with the violence and what we do see in the United States we're also a freer country and we're much more heterogynous than some of the other countries, too. So if you look at the undergirding social context, it's different, as well. And so the social norms and patterns of behavior are also unique for some of those countries. But, you know, to touch on the point that the death penalty causes greater harm, I don't accept that characterization either. I think the fact that it's the state that does carry out that particular punishment instead of an environment in which people who feel they have been greatly wronged by the taking of a loved one feel that the only route for justice is to take justice into their own hands is something we're able to forestall by having society then and the state assume that responsibility and that right that an individual otherwise has to carry it out in a way that comports with due process.

Ted Simons: Closure for the victims of loved ones, please respond to that.

Dan Peitzmeyer: Well, there is no closure. There is no closure with execution or without execution. I mean, it's a very, very divisive issue. Parents of murdered children, national group, will not speak to it because even within the home, one parent may wish to spare the life of their child's murder and the other one would like to as you say take it into their own hands. Really executing someone is revenge. And it's simply revenge. And it's a very sad thing, and it's detrimental to society. Bud welch, his daughter was blown up in the Oklahoma city bombing. He wanted to kill Timothy McVeigh. This was his precious child and if he could have, he would have. And then he came to the realization that it was hate that took the lives of those 163 people in the murrow building and he didn't need to have that hate within him. So forgiveness is what we're about. And I think that's what we need to come to as a society. Now, Mr. Montgomery made a statement that we are fair and just in this country, and I think to a degree, and our system of justice is better than anywhere else. But it is nevertheless arbitrary and capricious. What type of punishment were going to receive is dependent on where you commit the crime.

Bill Montgomery: And I want to start with the previous point that was made, too, and forgiveness for someone who murders is not mutually exclusive to holding them accountable and I've never argued and I've never seen a family that's lost a loved one claim that they received closure from the death penalty, either the sentence or the imposition and I don't think that that's something that anything we do on this earth can bring about true closure because of the degree of harm and hurt that results. And so I would have to say that the reason why the death penalty is still an important part of the criminal justice system is that it still recognizes that a life was lost. A life was taken from that immediate family and society in general has lost, too, because we'll never benefit from the contributions that that person might have offered.

Dan Peitzmeyer: If I can interject, nor would we benefit from whatever contributions the killer may contribute if he is not executed.

Bill Montgomery: Well, I would say, though, on that point, and we could get a degree of deterrents and we certainly are able to demonstrate that there is a price to be paid for committing homicide that we do executions for by carrying out that punishment. Just a couple of years ago, we had six executions in Arizona. And I witnessed one of them myself, I felt I had an obligation to see what that punishment looked like if I was going to be not just a proponent but an authorizer of seeking it. And in that year, every time that there is an execution, the facility there in Florence gets shut down. Those inmates know somebody's been executed and for everybody who was incarcerated during that year when that happened six times, that was a message that sunk in.

Ted Simons: And the last point because we've got to get out of here but I want to give you the last word.

Dan Peitzmeyer: I want to go to costs. I think costs in Arizona are going to be very effective. We are in a terrible budget shortfall. And the money that was spent trying to kill jodi arias, 3.5 the last figure I heard from the county supervisors and the defense. Washington state has shown studies that prosecutor costs are somewhere between 2.1 and 4.2

Bill Montgomery: $135,000.

Dan Peitzmeyer: When you talk that way, you're not you're talking about witnesses or travel costs. You're not talking about opportunity costs. Juan Martinez could have been more effective doing other things than working that case for the past five years.

Bill Montgomery: He did. In fact, he received a conviction in the Brian holsey case in the murder of a police officer who then received the death penalty, too. So he was able to handle more than just one.

Ted Simons: We've got to stop it right there. We're running out of time. Great discussion. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

Dan Peitzmeyer: Thank you.

Bill Montgomery:Attorney, Maricopa County; Dan Peitzmeyer:President, Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona;

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