LAW

State voters should keep the death penalty abolished

Wisconsin used to have the death penalty. Before 1853. Before the botched hanging in 1851 of John McCaffary, who drowned his wife in a water trough. I first wrote about the McCaffary hanging in 1991, when the Legislature was also considering enacting the death penalty. It’s quite a story. On a summer day in 1851, Kenosha County officials set up a wooden gallows in an area large enough to accommodate about 2,000 spectators who showed up to watch the hanging.

A newspaper at that time said McCaffary’s body was “hoisted” into the air when he hit the end of the rope. He dangled there for about eight minutes. His heart was still beating. Doctors checked his pulse and then let him hang there for another 10 minutes, in front of all the spectators, before he finally died.

Public opinion changed pretty dramatically about capital punishment in Wisconsin after that. In 1853, the Legislature abolished it. Now many legislators want to bring it back. Several weeks ago, the state Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 5, calling for an advisory referendum in November on the issue of capital punishment.

Late Thursday, the Assembly voted to put the death penalty referendum on the November ballot. It’s unclear whether that will happen, however, because the Assembly proposal was slightly different than the Senate version, and another Senate vote would be required.

State Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, who supports both the referendum and the death penalty itself (for particularly heinous crimes), said he expects the Senate to approve the issue later when it comes back to deal with some administrative issues.Legislators have been trying for years to bring back the death penalty for Wisconsin.

In 1991, they sought the death penalty for serial killers. The question legislators want to ask voters this time is if they favor capital punishment for murders where there is a DNA match.Public opinion surveys often show that most citizens favor the death penalty, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. One theory is that the death penalty deters murder.

Does it? Louisiana has the death penalty and it also has the highest murder rate in the country, with 12.7 murders for every 100,000 people in 2004.The murder rates in the death penalty states of Maryland, New Mexico and Mississippi are all above seven murders for every 100,000 people.

In Wisconsin, by contrast, the murder rate is 2.8. Iowa doesn’t have the death penalty, and its rate is 1.6. Texas, which executes the most people in the nation, has a 6.1 murder rate.

The New York Times, which has published editorials against capital punishment, did a study of homicide rates and death penalties in 2000, and concluded that murder rates rise and fall with little seeming relationship to whether states execute murderers.

The Times quoted Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, who said the death penalty is applied unfairly to minorities. “It is rare that a wealthy white man gets executed, if it happens at all,” McCann said.

Officials who “have labored long in the criminal justice system know, supported by a variety of studies and extensive personal experience, that blacks get the harsher hand in criminal justice and particularly in capital punishment cases,” McCann wrote in 1996.

Public safety can be served by keeping our most dangerous criminals in prison without parole for the rest of their lives.That way we don’t need to restore the death penalty in Wisconsin.