The end of death row

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Joe Corcoran
Joe Corcoran

When I saw the cover of the latest issue of Time magazine Monday, my thoughts turned right away to Joe Corcoran.

Time’s in-depth treatment of the decline of the death penalty in the United States tells the story of the country’s failure to justify this ultimate sanction.

Just last week, Nebraska became the latest state to abolish the death penalty. Even most Republican lawmakers in that deeply conservative part of the country joined with Democrats to override the Republican governor’s veto.

That makes 19 states to ban executions. Yet hundreds of convicted killers continue to sit on death row throughout the country. Joe Corcoran is one of them.

It’s such a sad story. In 1992, at 16, he was acquitted of killing his parents one morning at their northeast Indiana lake home. He wiped his prints from the shotgun then caught the school bus and attended his regular classes.

In 1997, when he was living at his sister’s Fort Wayne home, he shot and killed four young men who were watching a baseball game and drinking beer in the living room. His sister Kelly had gone to the store for more beer.

“They were talking about me,” Joe explained to the police detective interviewing him. He had been trying to sleep in his bedroom upstairs. On the video, you can see he showed no emotion.

“I guess that’s it,” he concluded.

I got John Nimmo, Joe’s defense attorney, to enlist the help of the state’s top forensic psychiatrist. He spent hours talking with Joe at the Allen County jail. The doctor’s diagnosis was what I had guessed:
paranoid schizophrenia.

I visited Joe myself, first at the county jail, then at the state prison in Gary, Indiana. Even under a doctor’s care – and I presumed getting medication – he appeared quite serious as he shared his delusional beliefs with me.

Officials refused Joe’s request to have his vocal cords cut. That’s what he wanted. He feared that he was uttering his sexual secrets aloud in his sleep.

At that time, I was still writing editorials for the morning paper. I composed several pieces urging the state to change Joe’s sentence to life in prison. That change never happened. Officially, that never happened.

But as in hundreds of other death penalty cases throughout the country,
these major offenders can sit on death row for years. One man I read about in the Time article has been awaiting his execution for nearly 40 years.

It’s not just that’s the system is inhumane. It’s broken. When offenders are executed, it’s likely to be a person of color. It’s also likely to be an offender poorly represented by his attorney. Further, the offender is more likely than not to suffer from some form of mental illness.

The death penalty also costs the state much more than a life sentence. That’s because the state must pay for attorney and court costs during these endless appeals in addition to the cost of housing the offender.

Worst of all, criminal courts and sentencing judges make mistakes. Since 1975, new evidence and better attorneys have meant that more than 150 people on death row have been exonerated.

The death penalty doesn’t deter. Lots of research established that long ago. Moreover, executing the killer might bring peace to some family members of the victims but not to others. In fact, the years of appeals mean survivors are forced to relive the crime over and over again.

It’s been a long time since I visited with Joe Corcoran’s two sisters. Both not only lost their parents to Joe’s killing spree. They also lost good friends, including a brother. One sister lost her fiancĂ©.

By the time of Joe’s trial, the sisters both opposed the death penalty for their brother.

“There’s been enough killing,” Kelly remarked.

Yes, I believe quite enough.

In that

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