Death penalty panel seeks to educate

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Randy Gardner stood vigil outside the state prison in 2010 as his brother was put to death.

Ronnie Lee Gardner was put to death by the state last year for a murder during a botched robbery. At a panel discussion Thursday sponsored by the BYU chapter of  Amnesty International, his brother, Randy, and two other speakers contended the death penalty is not the best way to punish criminals.

While the view of the panel was strongly for the abolishment of the death penalty, there are many who support the death penalty and can explain the other side of the issue.

Ralph Dellapiana, director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and a public defender, said as a law student and young lawyer, he was originally for the death penalty. It wasn’t until he had to defend a client from possible sentencing that he changed his mind. Dellapiana recalls waking up in cold sweat during the trail.

“It wasn’t until I realized that I had someone else’s life in my hands until I realized how inhumane it was,” he said. “My colleagues in the prosecutor’s office were planning how to get my client killed. How could you plan out how to kill another person?”

Dellapiana decided to get a group of people, ranging from former prosecutors, to mayors and governors who opposed the death penalty to form the organization.

Randy Gardner, who was part of the panel, is now a board member at Journey to Hope, an organization comprised of family and friends of murder victims who oppose the death penalty. Gardner said that on his brother’s death certificate, they listed his cause of death as homicide, but Gardner considers it premeditated murder.

“I think it is cruel and unusual punishment to lock someone up for 25 years,” he said. “I’ve suffered, I’ve seen his kids suffering. I feel terrible for the victims, but I didn’t know we would be the next victims of the murder.”

John Mejia, legal director at Utah’s chapter of the ACLU, said when he worked for a federal judge, he saw the problems in the legal system, and wanted to change it, especially when it came to the decision between life and death. In a lot of cases, he said, the outcome of the case lay in who represented the accused.

“In most situations, it wasn’t the case was bad, but one lawyer was just better than the other,” he said. “A lot who represent them are doing it for the first time and have busy case loads.”

He said in America, the system called advocacy has to be balanced.

“Here, the job of the lawyer is to advocate, to do battle,” Mejia said, “Unless both sides are represented well, it’s not fair.”

All spoke about how the death penalty is rife with injustices.

Mejia said a lot of the time, being sentenced to death is all based on where you live, what your skin color is, and what the law of your state is. In 2010, 76 percent of executions took place in southern states.

“It’s not the best system for the most important question,” he said, “especially when one  in every 10 people put to death are exonerated.”

DNA testing is available in less than 10 percent of all homicide cases, and most law enforcement officials don’t agree with the death penalty as the best way to deal with criminals.

Dellapiana said there is a brutalization effect that seems to occur in states with the death penalty as an option of punishment, there’s a 50 percent higher rate of murder.

“When the state isn’t killing people, it’s a more gentle society,” he said. “On a subject this divisive, there are fair views on both sides, there’s more to the death penalty, there is the issue of the ethics of punishment, the morality of taking another person’s life.”

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