Monday, October 24, 2011

A Changing Tide?

Since the Idaho Department of Corrections announced that Paul Ezra Rhoades had been served with a death warrant scheduling him for execution on November 18, 2011, there has been a wide array of reaction. Idahoans from all corners of the state have expressed a range of reactions from relief and what can only be categorized as a display of vengeance* to disappointment and opposition.

It may not be all that telling that in this state, one of the most conservative in the Union, that many wholeheartedly believe in the death penalty. There are not only thousands of Idahoans who believe in the death penalty, there are many who believe that inmates like Rhoades have been given too many appeals and too much time on death row before being executed. I've read many comments at various sites in the past week from people who would throw out due process and the right to appeal in favor of speedy vengeance against predators like Rhoades. These, of course, are the same folks who claim to love and defend the Constitution. In Idaho even conservative Catholics are divided on the issue of the death penalty despite the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops stating that the death penalty is no longer necessary and Christians should work to rehabilitate criminals through God. It probably isn't, but should be, surprising that officials at the Idaho Department of Corrections actually have volunteered to carry out the execution.

What is more telling, I believe, is the varied reaction of those closest to the case. Following the announcement of the execution date, a former homicide detective with the Bonneville County Sheriff's Office said he hopes that the execution of Rhoades will bring closure to the families of his victims as well as to the myriad of law enforcement officials who are associated with the case. When the family of victim Nolan Haddon was asked for comment regarding the announcement, one brother stated that Rhoades' execution may bring relief to the community while another brother of the victim said there will never be closure for the Haddon family. I, too, am of the opinion that there will never be closure for the families of Rhoades' victims whether Rhoades is alive or not.

What is also telling and may reflect a changing tide in Idaho is what the media is saying about the Rhoades execution. The Twin Falls Times-News, hardly a bastion of liberal thinking, said in an editorial that they do not believe that the state of Idaho "should be the agent of the guilty party's death." They also went on to make two very good points about the construction of a new death chamber, what the Department of Corrections is calling "F Block", and the seemingly unjust nature of executions in a state that has executed relatively few inmates since statehood:
"We don’t believe it makes sense for the state to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new execution chamber. We don’t think it is just punishment when, over a course of 54 years, only three men are executed out of a death row population that has numbered dozens during that time span."
As a native Idahoan myself, I am grateful to live in a state that isn't as blasé about executions as, say, Texas. However, I agree with the Times-News that the state of Idaho hardly had the money to spend on a new and unnecessary execution chamber. I also adamantly agree with the Times-News' assertion that the practice of executing prisoners seems unjust when it has been utilized in such a way.

One last point. The Times went on to make one more point that may be the crux of why there seems to be a changing tide when it comes to public opinion and the death penalty: "[The death penalty] has never proven to be an effective deterrent; there is no agreement that execution is less costly than incarcerating someone for life." We have the ability to incarcerate individuals for life who have committed horrific crimes. There has been no proof that executing death row inmates deters crimes like those of Rhoades in any way. And if the brother of Nolan Haddon is a bellwether, there is absolutely no closure for the families of victims taken at the hands of a monster like Paul Ezra Rhoades. If there is no closure to come from it and no just way of administering it, what is achieved by executing a prisoner who could instead spend the rest of his life behind bars?
*To better understand how I came to refer to some of the responses to Rhoades' execution date as vengeance, I encourage you to wade through the comments left following this thoughtful, reasoned piece by Kevin Richert of the Idaho Statesman. Where Richert was dispassionate (his word, not mine), the responses were anything but.

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