Friday, April 9, 2010

Police chief says: Victims' families changed my mind

The Death Penalty Information Center posted a link to the presentation that West Orange, NJ Chief of Police James Abbott delivered at the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty this past February. Chief Abbott, who was a member of New Jersey's Death Penalty Study Commission, made some important observations about victims' families:

As a police chief, you should have no doubts that I support tough on crime policies and harsh punishment. I have no sympathy for killers, absolutely none. My sympathy, like all of you I’m sure, is with the families of murder victims. It was those very families, including some whose loved ones were police officers killed in the line of duty, which changed my mind about the death penalty.

I had no idea how much families suffer facing years of death penalty appeals and reversals. We had capital punishment in New Jersey for 24 years and we hadn’t executed anyone. For every person that had been sentenced to death, there was a family waiting for the promised punishment to be delivered. They went to court year after year, only to find in the end that the person would never be executed. The reality is that there is no closure in capital cases, just more attention to the murderer and less to the victim. Unfortunately, it’s easier for most of U.S. citizens to name notorious killers than it is their victims.

As I sat on the commission, I heard from these families, one after another. Their cries of pain were devastating. Many of them supported capital punishment when their loved one was killed, and it was only the direct experience of suffering through the process that prompted them to change their minds and beg us to recommend replacing it with life without parole. I heard from mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons who spoke of families being divided, lives lived in limbo, and childhoods abruptly ended by a never-ending court process. The death penalty was supposed to help families like these. And virtually everything I heard told me that it was tearing them apart.

At first I thought this problem was unique to New Jersey. But in the time since the study commission made its recommendations which became law, I’ve taken the time to learn more about the death penalty in other states. It doesn’t seem to work any better anywhere else. Even in Texas, which is the death penalty capital of the United States, it still takes years and millions more dollars for an execution to be carried out. It doesn’t seem like any state has found a way to carry out the death penalty quickly and cheaply and also accurately.

After the commission released our report, I began giving media interviews and talks about my experience. One thing I have been asked a lot is whether, as a police chief, I would still support the death penalty for the killing of a police officer. My answer is no. If I were ever killed in the line of duty, I would never, ever want my wife or children to have to suffer the way the families who testified before me have suffered.

Instead, I would want to know that the person who did it was behind bars for life, so they could never kill again, and that my family had the services they needed to heal and the financial support they needed to live without further sacrifice. Our Commission learned that those kinds of services were sorely lacking – and that they could be improved with the financial savings from ending the death penalty. Although we were unable to measure the costs of Life without Parole versus Capital Punishment with great precision primarily because some departments do not keep the data and because some of the extra cost takes the form of resource strain it was clear that the cost of Capital Punishment exceeded that of Life without Parole. Give a law enforcement professional like me those extra dollars and I’ll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn’t anywhere on my list.

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