Death-Row Inmates Prefer Death to Life

South Carolina appellate attorney Joe Savitz did everything he could to try to prevent the execution of Michael Passaro — not necessarily because he believed in his innocence, but because Passaro wanted to die.

Last September, Passaro was executed for the 1998 death of his daughter. Passaro was in a custody dispute with his second wife in November 1998 when he doused his van with gasoline, strapped 2-year-old daughter Maggie inside and then sat down in his car before lighting it on fire. However, before the fire could consume him, Passaro jumped out of the car but left Maggie to die.

Passaro pleaded guilty to murder in 2000 and requested — and received — the death penalty. Passaro did not, and never wanted, to appeal his guilty plea, and rejected his attorneys' attempts to help him.

Savitz argued that Passaro should not be executed because he would see it as a reward, not punishment. Passaro, Savitz said, had a long-standing death wish to join his first wife, who was killed in 1992 when a car struck her while she was trying to help an accident victim.

"He does not see the death sentence as punishment. He sees it as an escape from punishment," Savitz said before Passaro's lethal injection. "He believes that he will be reunited with his first wife and the child that he killed, Maggie. He wants to die and has gotten the state to help him carry it out in what is essentially a state-assisted suicide. He is not doing this because he feels a sense of remorse."

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a group opposed to capital punishment, Passaro's execution was one of seven "volunteer" executions in 2002, where death-row prisoners relinquished their remaining appeals and opted to be put to death.

More death-row inmates have been volunteering for their executions: Between 1993 and 2002, 75 volunteered for death, compared to the 22 consensual executions between 1977 and 1992. (Gary Gilmore, the first prisoner put to death after the Supreme Court reinstituted capital punishment in 1976, "volunteered" for his execution in 1977 because he did not want to live the rest of his life on death row.)

Some critics argue that this shows that, contrary to popular belief, death is not the ultimate punishment for prisoners.

"One could argue that life in prison is the worst kind of punishment and not the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, DPIC's executive director. "So many people wouldn't be volunteering for it if it was so bad."

Death Row’s Psychological Torture

Over the past 10 years, more death-row inmates have preferred execution to facing seemingly endless years of appeals. Some inmates had been on death row for more than 10 years and seemed to grow tired of appealing their cases, not knowing when or if they were going to die. Others, like Passaro and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001, chose not to pursue their appeals either at all or to their fullest extent.

Experts say prison conditions as well as increasing reluctance by governors and courts to grant clemency and appellate relief to inmates have helped fuel the rise in volunteer executions.

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