A state legislator revealed his intensions to reignite the death penalty debate in Wisconsin Friday.
State Sen. Tom Reynolds, R-West Allis, announced he is seeking co-sponsors for the legislation, which would reinstate capital punishment in Wisconsin as a sentencing option for crimes of first-degree homicide, first- or second-degree sexual assault and mutilation of the same victim. One provision of the bill would only allow the punishment to be used if DNA evidence were available to show a link between the defendant and the crime.
"My bill allows capital punishment for only the most egregious criminal acts," Reynolds said in a release. "The DNA requirement linking the defendant to the crimes will help ensure that only the guilty are punished. I believe the death penalty will have a deterrent effect that will save innocent lives."
Senate President Alan Lasee, R-DePere, said he would support such legislation, adding he co-authored a bill with Reynolds, which was introduced early in the year, calling for a referendum on the issue. Letting the public weigh in on the topic would allow legislators to proceed with proposals regarding the death penalty with voters' wishes in mind, Lasee said.
"I know that if we were to pass [a death penalty bill] in both houses, Gov. Doyle would most likely veto it," Lasee said. "So I think it is important to find out what the people of Wisconsin have to say about it."
Wisconsin's history with the death penalty dates back to before its statehood was granted. Though an unknown number of executions occurred before 1848, only one instance of capital punishment was used after Wisconsin became a state. In 1851, a man was publicly hung in Kenosha after he was convicted of drowning his wife in a well. The hanging drew hundreds of spectators, and one year later, petitions were submitted to the state asking for a repeal of the death penalty. In 1853, capital punishment was abolished in Wisconsin.
Yet since then, several attempts have been made to reinstitute the death penalty.
In cases such as the cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the death penalty would have been a suitable punishment, Lasee said, noting the death penalty would be reserved as an option for only the most horrific crimes.
"Not all murders would result in asking for district attorneys asking for the death penalty or judges imposing it," Lasee said, adding lethal injection would be the sole method used to execute prisoners if the death penalty were brought back. "This would be used for very select cases."
Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, said the government should not have the power to take people's lives. He added a life imprisonment sentence without parole is more appropriate for such heinous crimes.
"I've visited our state prisons, and believe me — spending the rest of your life in a state prison is not a pleasant thing — it's a significant punishment," Black said. "As a society I don't believe we should sink to the level of the criminals."
Though Lasee said he stands behind the death penalty because he feels the punishment for atrocious offenses should fit the crime, Black said no such thing can be achieved by the Legislature.
"If someone's a rapist, we're not going to rape him; if someone tortured their victim, we are not going to torture them," Black said. "It's one of the reasons we have a moral society that is different from the criminals."
One other issue, Black said, is the drawn-out appeals process that proceeds administration of the death penalty, creating a hefty financial burden on the state.
However, Lasee said cost issues could be worked out by reforming the state's appeals system, thus removing the expense hindrance.
Though the bill stipulates there must be DNA evidence in order to hand down a punishment of the death penalty, Black also said there is no foolproof way to ensure wrongful convictions do not occur.
"As we have found out, sometimes we make mistakes in the criminal justice system," Black said. "And if you kill someone, you can't reverse the mistake."