The Death Penalty Is a Miscarriage of Justice: It Should Be Abolished
by John W. Whitehead
by John W. Whitehead: The
New FBI Powers: Cointelpro on Steroids
reality is that capital punishment in America is a lottery. It is
a punishment that is shaped by the constraints of poverty, race,
geography and local politics."
~ Bryan Stevenson, death row lawyer
"Imposition of the death penalty is arbitrary and capricious.
The decision of who shall live and who shall die for his crime turns
less on the nature of the offense and the incorrigibility of the
offender and more on inappropriate and indefensible considerations:
the political and personal inclinations of prosecutors; the defendant's
wealth, race and intellect; the race and economic status of the
victim; the quality of the defendant's counsel; and the resources
allocated to defense lawyers." ~ Gerald Heaney, a former
There is nothing
moral or just about the death penalty certainly not the way
it is implemented in America, and anyone who says otherwise is either
deluding themselves or trying to get elected by appearing tough
on crime. Take Troy Davis, for example, a 43-year-old black man
from Georgia who has spent the past 20 years of his life on death
row for allegedly shooting and killing a white off-duty police officer
a crime he very well may not have committed.
Amnesty International, the case against Davis consisted entirely
of witness testimony, which contained inconsistencies even at the
time of the trial. Since then, all but two of the state's non-police
witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony.
Many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they
were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements
against Troy Davis. One of the two witnesses who has not recanted
his testimony is Sylvester "Red" Coles the principle
alternative suspect, according to the defense, against whom there
is new evidence implicating him as the gunman. Nine individuals
have signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles.
fact that the case against Davis has largely fallen apart, the courts
have not been inclined to grant Davis a new trial or evidentiary
hearing. At a minimum, there's enough doubt as to Davis' guilt to
commute his sentence. And even with prominent politicians and public
officials such as former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI
and Desmond Tutu lobbying on his behalf, Davis continues to languish
on death row at a Georgia prison.
Davis' journey to death row and his impending execution are indicative
of the many failings of the capital punishment system in America,
a system sorely lacking in justice and riddled by racial prejudice
and economic inequality, not to mention outright corruption.
As it now stands,
America's Western allies have abolished the death penalty, leaving
America as one of only three industrialized democracies still carrying
out capital punishment. Internationally, the U.S. ranks fifth in
terms of the number of prisoners put to death, putting America in
such ill-esteemed company as the regimes of China, Iran, North Korea,
and Yemen. In fact, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran,
wasted no time in pointing out the hypocrisy of the U.S. executing
Teresa Lewis last year while criticizing Iran for stoning a woman
convicted of adultery.
the U.S., 14 states and the District of Columbia have done away
with the death penalty. Execution remains an option in 34 states
and for federal inmates. Of the states still actively putting prisoners
to death, Texas and Virginia rank highest for the number of executions
carried out since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Indeed,
Texas Governor Rick Perry has presided over more than 200 executions
during his time in office, more than any other governor in U.S.
history, while Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has been an outspoken,
staunch supporter of the death penalty. Contrast this with Illinois
Governor Pat Quinn who, on March 9, 2011, signed a law banning the
death penalty, saying it was impossible to fix a system that had
wrongly condemned at least 20 innocent men to death (138 death row
inmates have had their convictions overturned since the death penalty
was reinstated in 1976). New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have
also done away with capital punishment in the past two years.
far, the greatest argument in favor of a moratorium on the death
penalty rests in the overwhelming evidence that the system is consistently
error-bound and flawed. In a Columbia University study on 5,760
capital cases, the report found an overall rate of error of 68 percent.
In other words, courts found serious reversible errors in nearly
7 out of 10 capital cases. The most common errors included egregiously
incompetent defense lawyers, prosecutorial suppression of evidence
and other misconduct, misinstruction of juries, and biased judges
and juries. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once
observed, "I have yet to see a death case among the dozens
coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications
in which the defendant was well represented at trial... People who
are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty."
In the Columbia
University study, the team of legal analysts concluded that the
death penalty system was "collapsing under the weight of its
own mistakes. They reveal a system in which lives and public order
are at stake, yet for decades has made more mistakes than we would
tolerate in far less important activities. They reveal a system
that is wasteful and broken and needs to be addressed."
disparities in sentencing are well known. For example, there are
1,371 blacks on death row (42% of the total death row population)
despite the fact that blacks only make up 12% of the U.S. population.
Indeed, blacks are 40% more likely to be sentenced to death than
a white defendant who has committed the same crime. Class and wealth
are also a factor in who receives the death penalty. In fact, almost
all death row inmates could not afford their own attorney at trial
and there is a significant disparity in wealth between murderers
who live and those who are executed.
Those who end
up on death row are also often the products of extreme abusive or
abject poverty. "In the US the overwhelming majority of those
executed are psychotic, alcoholic, drug addicted or mentally unstable,"
said George Ryan, former Illinois governor. "They frequently
are raised in an impoverished and abusive environment. Seldom are
people with money or prestige convicted of capital offenses, even
more seldom are they executed."
the death penalty arises from many practical considerations as well.
Abolishing the death penalty would save money to fund public works
programs to reduce poverty and child abuse, or simply to reduce
taxes and put more money in the pockets of Americans. The death
penalty, however, costs the state a great deal of money. Some studies
estimate that states spend 48% to 300% more prosecuting cases in
which the death penalty is an option versus cases in which it is
not. In North Carolina, it costs more than $2 million to execute
just one person. There are a myriad of ways to better utilize
the money presently being spent on prosecuting, sentencing, and
appealing death penalty cases.
As for the
argument that the death penalty is a deterrent to future violent
crimes, there is no convincing evidence to support that claim. Indeed,
67% of U.S. police chiefs do not believe that the death penalty
significantly reduces the numbers of murders. One study determined
that there was no appreciable difference in murder rates before
and after states had either reinstated or abolished the death penalty.
Due to the slow process and infrequent occurrence of death sentences
being carried out throughout the United States, most regression
analysis studies are unable to prove the efficacy of the death sentence.
As Gregory Ruff, a police lieutenant in Kansas, noted, "I have
never heard a murderer say they thought about the death penalty
as consequence of their actions prior to committing their crimes."
the death penalty allows government officials, who are often corrupt
or misinformed, to pursue an irreversible policy of killing with
imperfect information. Consequently, police officers, prosecutors,
juries, and judges have sent many innocent men to death row. Since
1973, 138 people have been released from death row after evidence
of their innocence was brought to light, each person spending an
average of 9.8 years in prison. That amounts to one in every ten
prisoners condemned to die since 1976 being innocent. Yet human
nature and the law of averages decree that if more than 100 individuals
have prevailed in proving their innocence, there must be many more
who have not been able to do so. Whether through lack of resources,
opportunity or time, these individuals go to their deaths innocent
of the crimes for which they were charged.
One such person
is Cameron Todd Willingham, accused, tried, and convicted of setting
a fire that killed his three children in 1992. He was put on death
row and executed in 2004. However, since his death there has been
a rigorous investigation into the circumstances surrounding the
fire that suggests Willingham was, in fact, innocent.
Even if most
of those condemned to die prove to be guilty, if just one innocent
person is wrongly executed, that is still one too many. No matter
what our individual views on the death penalty, its application
clearly deserves closer scrutiny. "Our capital system is haunted
by the demon of error," Governor George Ryan once said, "error
in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty
deserves to die." The inconsistency and utter randomness of
imposing the death penalty by any governmental body should give
even the most hard-line death penalty advocate pause.
attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
him mail] is founder and president of The
Rutherford Institute. He is the author of The
Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).
© 2011 The Rutherford Institute
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