On Wednesday, January 30 2013, the Judiciary Committee of the Arkansas Senate held a hearing to examine the pros and cons of the death penalty. The Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (ACADP) coordinated speakers who told legislators why capital punishment is bad public policy for the state. MVFR board member Judith Elane was among those who spoke up on why the death penalty does not meet the needs of murder victims’ families. Read her full testimony below:
“When my brother, Ronald Eugene “Gene” Schlatter, was shot and killed in a public place on November 8, 1968, he was 36 years old, married and the father of three. I was newly married. My husband and I traveled hundreds of miles to his funeral. His was the only corpse I have ever touched. I had not seen him in several months and felt I needed to tell him good-bye. We knew who was suspected of shooting him because there were eye witnesses who had recorded statements for the police. We were very hopeful for her apprehension.
However, she eluded authorities for over forty years. By the time she was arrested on February 9, 2009, it was too late for justice and the suspect was set free six days later. The prosecutor could no longer make a case. The eyewitness statements could no longer be corroborated and physical evidence had long since been destroyed.
As we have heard here today, numerous studies have shown that death sentences cost much more than life without parole. I can’t help but think that the expense of the death penalty may well have cost my brother and my family the justice we deserve. If the money now being spent on prosecuting the death penalty were instead spent on solving crimes, the countless families of the victims of unsolved murders would be better served. More perpetrators would be punished.
I tried to ﬁnd out how many unsolved murders there are on the records in Arkansas. According to a spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, there is no one source for such information. He told me that there are 328 different law enforcement agencies in Arkansas and each of them is responsible for maintaining its own database. So, I canʼttell you how many unsolved murders or missing persons cases Arkansas has.
While searching for this information, I learned that Parents of Murdered Children in Arkansas is compiling a list of victims whose murders are unsolved. A couple from Wynne, AR is working especially hard on this project following the slaying of their 24 year old daughter in 2002. The list is being compiled in hopes that Arkansas will create a cold-case squad to investigate unsolved murders independent of local law enforcement, increase funding for the Arkansas State Crime Lab and compile a list of unsolved homicides that will be continuously updated, starting with the list that they are compiling. The couple was inspired to work on the list when they heard Texas Rangers speak at a national POMC conference in Houston about the success of their unsolved crimes unit.
In an interview, the couple pointed out that a cold case squad could help solve cases now left to state and local law enforcement. They said that local law enforcement ofﬁces are not set up to investigate because many of them lack the manpower, ﬁnances or expertise to handle cold cases.
No doubt the number of unsolved murders in Arkansas is large. The families of murder victims would be well served by redirecting resources from prosecuting the death penalty to solving cold cases.
The story of my brotherʼs death demonstrates another way in which the current system with the death penalty does not serve murder victimsʼ families. Because the stakes are high when the possible outcome is death, it takes years to carry out a death sentence. This exacts a toll on victimsʼ families, re-opening the wounds of their loss, again and again. Although more than forty years had passed when the suspect in my brother’s case was arrested, the emotions her arrest unleashed for my family were overpowering. I can only imagine what families suffer when the accused killer goes through the many appeals built into the death penalty as safeguards.
Another statistic that I was not able to ﬁnd is the average length of time between sentencing and punishment for those convicted of murder in Arkansas. I found that the average length of time between conviction and execution in the U.S. in 2010 was close to 15 years (14.83). Based upon information on the Department of Corrections website, the 37 men currently on Arkansas Death Row have been there an average of nearly 14 years (13.95). This is 14-15 years of prolonged suffering for victims families.
Perhaps there was a time in our history when the death penalty served victims’ families and served the purpose of safety and justice for all citizens – but that time is past. Instead of propping up the expensive and prolonged process of the death penalty, Arkansas should replace the death penalty with life sentences and redirect the money saved to provide law enforcement and prosecutors with more resources to do their important jobs; to provide support for victimsʼ families that help them rebuild their lives; and to better resource programs and services like education and mental health treatment that are shown to reduce violent crime in the first place.”