Is the Price of Justice Worth the Cost of Alabama's Death Row?
It's the ultimate form of punishment, but some say there's no justice in it. While the death penalty has always been controversial, it's now under scrutiny across the country.
Right before leaving office last month, the Governor of Illinois took 167 inmates off death row, calling the system unfair and immoral. Does that mean that capital punishment in Alabama could be fatally flawed?
Right now, there are 190 inmates--black and white, men and women--waiting on appeals or waiting to die. State officials say the system is fair, but one Morgan County man says he's living proof that there are innocent people on death row.
For eight years, a cell was home for Gary Drinkard. He spent five years on death row for a crime he says he didn't commit.
"The lord provides well, but i've still got a lot of anger," says Drinkard.
In 1993, Drinkard was arrested for the shooting death of a Decatur businessman. Several years later, he got a new trial and was acquited. Drinkard says he used to support the death penalty, until his years behind bars gave him new insight on just how the system works.
"I would ask the attorney general if the death penalty is not about vengeance, for him to explain what it was all about," says Drinkard.
"Those murderers who are executed are never going to murder again and it's sending a strong message to others who would be murders that this is the form of punishment that is available to the state," says Attorney General Bill Pryor.
Alabama's prisons are already under fire. Because of a federal lawsuit on living conditions, the department of corrections denied NewsChannel 19's request to visit state prisons and talk with death row inmates.
There are groups that say it's not just conditions inside, but the system itself that needs an overhaul.
"We need to look at what the most effective way to do that is, and it's most definitely not what we're doing now," says Lucia Penland.
She heads the Alabama Prison Project, a group working on prisoners' rights, looking to abolish the death penalty. She says discrepancies in the system mean poor people and minorities are most likely to end up on death row.
"Where the most bias has been found is in the race of the victims. If someone kills a white person, they're much more likely to get a death sentence, if that person is a minority, the figures just shoot way up," says Penland.
According to an NAACP Legal Defense report, 87 of Alabama's 190 death row inmates are black. The attorney general says that percentage is lower than in other states, and that there's no racial bias in the system.
The report shows that of Alabama's neighboring states, Florida has the highest percentage of black death row inmates, at 63%. Mississipi is at 54%, Georgia at 47%, and Tennessee has the smallest number of black death row inmates, at 37%.
Financially, Drinkard wonders why the death penalty is used instead of life without parole.
"It costs less to keep someone in prison for 40 years than it does to carry them to execution," he says.
Both the Attorney General and the Department of Corrections could not provide an exact figure for housing an inmate for life versus execution. The state recently spent $166,000 to replace the "yellow mama" electric chair with a lethal injection chamber. So far, it's been used once.
The cost of executing an inmate is mostly legal. The attorney general says court bills from a single trial reach $35,000 to $40,000. That's not including any of the appeals and reviews associated with a capital case.
The Department of Corrections says the cost of housing a death row inmate is $26 a day, or just under $10,000 a year.
Drinkard says being behind bars, is punishment enough for any crime.
"If you put a person in jail he'll suffer each and every day," he says.
But some victims' families say the emotional closure an execution can bring is worth the cost of capital punishment.
So far, there are no scheduled executions in Alabama this year.
To find out more about where Alabama ranks in numbers of death row inmates, log onto the NAACP Legal and Educational Fund at
Gail Ballantyne reports on the Price of Justice, part 2
Alabama's death row is supposed to be for the worst criminals, a way to punish people who have committed crimes so heinous, they deserve to die. But who
makes that decision? It's not always a jury of your peers.
Up to a quarter of Alabama's death row inmates were put there by judges who overruled a jury's recommendation of life in prison.
It's called judicial override, and a Supreme Court decision may challenge it. But for now, it's legal in Alabama. Some say it's another sign of fatal flaws in the justice system.
Those close to Keith Johnson say he lost his cocky swagger before he became the first person to die by lethal injection in Alabama. His pastor, Rev. Tom Elder, was there.
"He signaled to us that he loved us, and that was his last living thing," Elder says.
He adds that Johnson underwent a radical transformation before his execution, turning to religion, and ministering to other death row inmates.
"He was not afraid, he was not angry. But I am," Elder says.
The sign at Oak Ridge United Methodist Church in Hartselle reads "forgiveness". But Elder is more concerned about justice, because no one else was ever prosecuted in Kenneth Cantrell's murder, more than 18 years ago.
"We know Keith did not kill. He was there, but he did not kill the person, that's the opening line of the prosecuting attroney at his trial. But he was there. So were the other three, but they're walking the streets today, where's the justice in that?" asks Elder.
Attorney General Bill Pryor says the law is clear.
"All of those who are involved in the conspiracy to commit capital murder in Alabama are eligible for capital punishment. It matters not if you were doing everything from not being the triggerman versus being the triggerman," says Pryor.
The jury in Johnson's case suggested a sentence of life in prison.
"We allow juries to make a recommendation in capital cases, because we think community participation, a sense of how the community feels about a capital case, is more important in a case involving the ultimate punishment than any other criminal case," says Pryor.
But a judge has the final word and in Johnson's case, that judge chose the death penalty. Several anti-death penalty groups say as many as 45 of the 190 inmates on Alabama's death row were put there by judges who overrode a jury's recommendation. But the attorney general says the number is closer to 17 or 18 percent, not 25 percent.
Despite a Supreme Court ruling that may challenge judicial override, Pryor says Alabama's process is legal and fair. Judicial override may offer some comfort to victims' family members.
After a very public trial, a jury found Daniel Wade Moore guilty of murder and recommended life in prison. Instead, the judge issued a death sentence. It came as a relief to the victim's family.
"Everyone has been surprised, and everyone has been pleased that the judge could make this decision," says Dr. David Tipton, whose wife was murdered at their Decatur home.
Elder says sin has its consequences, but he wonders about the circumstances that surround remaining death row inmates.
"If I know this kind of injustice can happen with Keith, then why wouldn't it happen to other people?" he asks.
Some would say it's the ultimate form of justice. Others say too many issues in the system make the death penalty unjust.
Because of a federal lawsuit, former Alabama Corrections Commissioner Mike Haley denied NewsChannel 19's request to interview death row inmates. Alabama now has a new commissioner, Donal Campbell. He's the former Tennessee DOC commissioner.