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A Bad Misquote on Death Penalty Costs

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I talk to the press fairly often on the subject of the death penalty and am quoted in the stories occasionally. They invariably spell my name correctly, no small accomplishment. The quotes are almost always accurate when they are direct quotes. Reporters' paraphrases of what I say, on the other hand, are often off the mark. On occasion, though, even a direct quote can be wrong. Sometimes it is simply not what I said. Sometimes, a quote is accurate as far as it goes but clips off an essential part of the statement. A whopper of a truncated quote that is effectively a misquote can be found in this AP story by David Crary.

On the subject of the cost of the death penalty, I have stated my position publicly many times. That position is that the death penalty would not cost significantly more than life imprisonment if we did them both correctly. It might cost less. To see why we must look separately at the guilt and penalty phases.

Regarding the guilt phase of the trial, I have said many times, "Whatever we need to spend on a death penalty case [to make sure we have the actual perpetrator], there is no moral justification for spending a penny less on a life imprisonment case." Although an innocent person sentenced to life in prison would have longer time to prove his innocence, the reality is that in almost all cases he will not have the resources to do so and will probably die in prison. Hence, to argue we can save money on the guilt phase by abolishing capital punishment is to argue, in effect, that we save money by locking up innocent people for life.

Regarding the penalty phase, and review of the penalty phase, my consistent position has been that we don't need to spend as much as we do. If the Supreme Court overruled Lockett v. Ohio, we wouldn't need this extended, expensive psychosocial examination of the defendant's entire life. If the rule of Stone v. Powell were extended to the penalty phase of criminal cases, review would be shorter and less expensive.

That two-part, somewhat extended statement does not lend itself well to the kind of pithy, bumper-sticker-like statement of position that fits easily in a news story. So here is what I supposedly said as reported in the AP article:

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, acknowledged that capital punishment cases generally do cost more than other cases because of the lengthy legal reviews. It's worth it for the sake of justice, he said.

"Whatever we need to spend on a death penalty case, there's no moral justification for spending less," he said.

That is not an accurate statement of my position, and the truncated quote is effectively a misquote.

Postscript: I emailed AP with my objection as soon as the story came out, and Mr. Crary called me back on Friday. He says the quote in the story is consistent with his notes. I do not doubt that the problem is the result of an honest misunderstanding and not malice or intentional misquoting. The purpose of this post is simply to set the record straight on what my position is.

1 Comment

Kent, any plans on bringing the matter up with Crary? It's evident that Crary wants the reader to believe that the "pro-death penalty" crowd intends to spend the last penny of Joe Citizen's paycheck to impose the death penalty on some poor schmuck that happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bungled paraphrase could be excused, but Crary is attributing to you words you never said.

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