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The 'argumentative' American

Economics may not seem to many a compelling argument to do away with the death penalty. Lalita Panicker reports.

delhi Updated: Jan 29, 2011 23:45 IST
Lalita Panicker

Economics may not seem to many a compelling argument to do away with the death penalty. Eminent legal activist and senior lecturer at the Northwestern University School of Law, Leigh Buchanan Bienen, however, argues her case that capital punishment cases are far more economically wasteful than life cases with great clarity. In the Capital recently, she was modest about her untiring efforts to have the death penalty repealed in the state of Illinois.

She is no bleeding-heart activist even though she has seen up close how the murder of a loved one tears the families of both the victim and perpetrator apart. In many cases, she feels that the impulse for vengeance is justified. She just feels that the criminal justice system is far from perfect and that any ambiguity in the death penalty is unacceptable. "Illinois had a capital litigation fund to finance the legal process in homicide cases. In the course of my research, I found that money was taken from the fund for 507 cases on the plea that these were capital cases. Many of them did not go to capital case trial and the money was never paid back." In other words, litigators were able to get their hands on public money for cases, which never went to trial eventually as capital cases.

Life imprisonment, she feels, serves the purpose of deterrence. In the case of many on death row, she says that reviews often threw up evidence proving innocence. This meant millions of dollars in damages to the state.

As a result of efforts by people like her, public support for the death penalty is much lower in the US than before. The system is so arbitrary that the death sentence can rarely be justified. But she says litigators like nothing more than capital cases with their publicity and drama.

In reply to a ghoulish question on which is the best method to implement the death penalty, she says it is hanging if properly done. Nothing grips public attention quite so much as an execution but the state cannot pander to these baser instincts. But she says it is an endlessly seductive subject and one in which she feels that she has many more milestones to cross.