No one will be executed under New York State's new death penalty law probably for at least a decade.
That was one point of agreement Wednesday night between Chuck Culhane, an ex-death-row inmate, and Dr. Ernest van den Haag, a professor associated with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank.
The two were combatants for two hours Wednesday night in a debate on the death penalty in the Moot Courtroom of O'Brian Hall, the home of the University at Buffalo Law School, on the North Campus.
However, van den Haag, a retired professor of jurisprudence and social policy at Fordham University and an editor of the National Review, and Culhane, a graduate student in the American studies department at UB, who served more than two decades in prison for the 1968 slaying of a Westchester County sheriff's deputy, agreed on little else.
Van den Haag called the death penalty a justified punishment for intentional murder and said common sense tells us that it is also a deterrent.
"I would rest my case on common sense. Ninety-nine percent of death-row inmates try to get their sentences commuted to life. Therefore life is preferable to death. Life sentences without parole are a fiction, because any governor can commute," van den Haag said.
Culhane, who spent 33 months on death row until the state dropped the penalty in the mid-1970s, argued that the death penalty is not only ineffective at deterring murder, but falls disproportionately on minorities and the financially disadvantaged. He said politicians were offering the penalty as a "fraudulent" solution to the nation's crime problems in order to get elected.
"It confirms power and authority, the status quo and denies the possibility of change in people's lives," Culhane said.
Culhane said the pain of victims and
their families should not be minimized, but the millions of dollars spent on executions could be better used to compensate crime victims.
"Prison is no picnic. It's a struggle to survive and became a person. Prison at least gives people a chance," said Culhane.
However, van den Haag pointed out that biblical verse also supports execution and that, historically, some Christian theologians have supported it.
Both van den Haag and Culhane agreed that a relatively small percentage of murderers in this country are actually executed either because of the appeals process and other factors.
Van den Hag said the criminal-justice system produces a variety of results for many reasons, including the variety of laws from state to state.
Culhane said racial discrimination is rampant in the criminal-justice system and that money, power and position affect who is executed and who is spared.
"The people who don't have the help, the support, the money -- those are the ones who are executed," Culhane said.
"What is the symbolism of the death penalty? If you kill someone, you're going to be executed. What is that teaching people to do, but kill someone?" he said.