When James Lee Crummel hanged himself last month, very few mourned his passing. A child molester who kidnapped, sexually abused and murdered a 13-year-old boy in 1979, Crummel was on death row in San Quentin when he took his own life using an extension cord. What's notable about this is that he was the 20th death row inmate to commit suicide since California reinstated capital punishment in 1978. That's seven more than the number of convicts who have been executed since then.
This figure says something about the false promise of capital punishment: The families of victims may get some visceral satisfaction when their loved ones' killers are sentenced to death, but this turns to frustration and bitterness as decades pass without the sentences being carried out. Fifty-seven death row inmates have died of natural causes since 1978, so such prisoners are almost six times more likely to expire by their own or nature's hand than by the executioner's.
Proponents and opponents of the death penalty have very different reactions to such statistics. To proponents, it's an indication that our court system is hopelessly overprotective of the rights of criminals and that the appeals process should be streamlined. Yet this ignores the moral and legal imperative to do everything possible to ensure, before carrying out the ultimate penalty, that a convict is truly guilty. False convictions happen more often than many realize — according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 140 death row inmates nationwide have been exonerated since 1973 while awaiting execution. Court delays also block unconstitutional and inhumane executions; California, for instance, hasn't executed anyone since 2006 as lawyers wrangle over the pain experienced by inmates during lethal injection. Moreover, even as lengthy and costly appeals drag on, there is no way to be 100% certain of an inmate's guilt, which is why we favor replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.