Port: We might now wonder if the death penalty is worth the trouble.
"Alfonso Rodriguez, whose rape and murder of Dru Sjodin made national headlines, and led to a national sex offender registry, will no longer be facing a death sentence. Should anyone ever again?"
MINOT, N.D. — Alfonso Rodriguez, who brutally raped and murdered Dru Sjodin in 2003, a case that led to the creation of a national sex offender registry , will no longer be facing a death sentence thanks to a decision from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Mac Schneider, appointed as U.S. attorney for North Dakota by President Joe Biden, made it clear that the decision was made in Washington, D.C., not North Dakota.
"I was very straightforwardly directed to withdraw the notice," Schneider told our April Baumgarten .
Drew Wrigley, currently North Dakota's attorney general, who served as U.S. attorney when Rodriguez was first prosecuted and convicted, is livid about the news.
"Rodriguez will remain in prison for life, but the gates of death row will be opened, returning him to general prison population where he will be allowed to construct a social existence and life for himself within the confines he found so comfortable across the decades he was previously imprisoned," Wrigley said in a statement released by his office. "This result is a grave affront to justice and to the hearts and souls of all who loved and cared for Dru Sjodin. They have our prayers for God’s Peace as do all who held out the hope there would be justice for that brave woman.”
It's not difficult to understand Wrigley's pique. And, as he alludes to, I am certain that there are friends and family members of Sjodin's who are feeling wronged today. Rodriguez was convicted two decades ago, yet his endless appeals have lingered, denying resolution for all involved.
Maybe this, now, is an end, but not the one they were promised. Few of us can understand what that sort of pain and frustration is like. Hopefully, we never will.
We might now wonder if the death penalty is worth the trouble. I have no moral compunctions about putting vicious criminals to death, but as a practical matter of policy, the death penalty seems a poor instrument for justice.
To be clear, North Dakota doesn't have the death penalty. Rodriguez's sentence was delivered in federal court. In addition to the federal government, most states — 27, to be exact — allow for the death penalty, though that number has shrunk significantly since Rodriguez was convicted. Eleven states have banned the death penalty since 2004, including:
- Virginia (2021)
- Colorado (2020)
- New Hampshire (2019)
- Washington (2018)
- Delaware (2016)
- Maryland (2013)
- Connecticut (2012)
- Illinois (2011)
- New Mexico (2009)
- New Jersey (2007)
- New York (2004)
Not surprisingly, the number of death sentences handed down in the United States has shrunk as well. There were 151 death sentences and 65 executions in 2003, according to the Death Sentence Information Center , compared to just 20 sentences and 18 executions in 2022, an 86% and 72% decline, respectively.
America is moving on from the death penalty, and the overarching reason seems to be that it just doesn't work very well. Proponents say it deters crime, but there's no evidence of this. "States that have death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without such laws," the ACLU notes . "And states that have abolished capital punishment show no significant changes in either crime or murder rates."
Also, the process of carrying out a death penalty keeps getting longer. "In 1984, the average time between sentencing and execution was 74 months, or a little over six years, according to BJS . By 2019, that figure had more than tripled to 264 months, or 22 years," the Pew Research Center tells us . "The average prisoner awaiting execution at the end of 2019, meanwhile, had spent nearly 19 years on death row."
There have been years when more death row inmates die from old age than the death penalty.
Appeals are the primary factor behind this trend, but before you dismiss that as just a bunch of do-gooder lawyers obstructing justice, consider that there are good reasons for it. The rise of DNA as a tool to exonerate the wrongly convicted, for example. According to the Innocence Project , since 1989 there have been 375 incarcerated people exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States, including 21 who had received the death penalty.
Could we move this process along by putting restrictions on the appeals process? Maybe. But would that get us more justice or less?
How many innocent people are we willing to execute in the name of expediting death sentences? Remember, the system is fallible. "Since 1973, 190 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of all charges related to the wrongful convictions that had put them on death row," the DPIC reports .
If the death penalty doesn't deter crime, and if it takes decades to carry out an execution, then what's the point?
Catharsis for the families and friends of victims? I'm sympathetic to that argument, though I wonder how many of them wouldn't rather have the definitive end of a life sentence as opposed to the years of will-they-or-won't-they inherent to a death sentence.
If Alfonso Rodriguez had been put to death, I would have seen that as justice. He was guilty. The punishment would have fit the crime. But when we talk about a policy like the death penalty, are aren't talking about any one case. We're talking about a system. And the death penalty system in America doesn't work.
Maybe it's time to give it up.