Sunday, July 8, 2007
By Terry Woster
PIERRE - Almost one of every nine persons sentenced to death since 1977 has asked, as Elijah Page did in South Dakota last summer, to have all legal appeals ended and the execution carried out, a University of Colorado death penalty scholar says.
Michael Radelet, a nationally known death-penalty expert at the University of Florida before joining the sociology faculty at the University of Colorado, said that has happened more often in recent years and it's more common with a younger convicted killer.
Page, 25, waived his appeals last summer and was scheduled to die by injection in August. A conflict between law and corrections department policy about the drugs to use prompted a delay while legislators clarified the law. The execution now is scheduled for sometime this week at the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
"It's not all that uncommon for a person on Death Row to give up appeals and want to get it over,'' Radelet said. "That's happening increasingly now, and especially with younger inmates.''
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 invalidated death sentences. The court later said capital punishment could be mandated with conditions. South Dakota re-enacted its death penalty in 1979. The statute, changed in 2004 to prohibit a death sentence for anyone under 18 at the time of the crime, has withstood several attempts at repeal.
Since states began to re-enact their death penalties in 1977, Radelet says, 1,083 people have been executed in the U.S. Of those, 126 gave up their appeals, which can stretch for several years.
"That's 11.6 percent who ended appeals and asked that the sentence be carried out,'' he said.
South Dakota's last execution was of George Sitts in 1947. He was electrocuted for crimes that included killing a law officer.
Page is scheduled to die for his part in the torture-murder of Chester Allen Poage in the Black Hills in 2000.
During the last legislative session, as lawmakers tried to fix the conflict in state law over drug protocols, they also debated two proposals to repeal the death penalty entirely. One died 11-1 in a House committee, the other 7-1 in a Senate committee.
State Sen. Ben Nesselhuf, D-Vermillion, was the lone vote for repeal in the Senate panel. He also tried and failed to have a moratorium on executions in the state to allow time to study the practice, state policies and the process used. Life without parole is a preferable solution, he said.
"My objection to the death penalty has always been that it's not the proper role for government,'' Nesselhuf said. "The state shouldn't be in the business of killing people, regardless.''
The fact that Page waived appeals is immaterial, he added
"I don't particularly care whether he's ready or not. This isn't his decision,'' Nesselhuf said. "I don't think it's up to Elijah Page to have any say in what we do.''
State Sen. Bob Gray, R-Pierre, said it's clear that a majority of South Dakotans want the death penalty available for the worst murder cases.
"Anytime you have anybody who wants to die, it's going to weigh on you.''
The state's last execution happened 25 years before he was born, and he said the idea of capital punishment has largely been an abstract one until the Page case began to speed up.
"Here we are nearly on the eve of an execution, and as a legislator, it weighs on you,'' Gray said. "But when I look at the people on Death Row, I also think about their victims, what they did to their victims.''
Reach Terry Woster at 605-280-0522.