As we begin this year, America is undergoing a radical
shift in thought regarding the death penalty
. Last August, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 63 percent of Americans support suspending all further execution
s until capital trials can be proven to be fair
– an indication of a wide belief that our criminal justice system is not
Earlier Gallup polls showed that support for the death penalty has dropped almost 15 percent since 1994, and that half of those responding would favor abandoning the death penalty completely if given the option of life imprisonment without parole. To borrow a well worn phrase, "the times they are a-changin'." http:www.gallup.com/poll/indicators/inddeath_pen.asp
People certainly became more aware of the debate over the death penalty last January after Illinois governor George Ryan issued a moratorium suspending all executions due to basic flaws in the system. Ryan is not your typical death penalty opponent: a law-and-order conservative Republican, he voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1977 as a member of the Illinois legislature.
But, following the release of 13 innocent death row inmates and a Chicago Tribune examination that showed that one third of the 285 capital convictions in Illinois since 1977 were reversed due to fundamental errors , Ryan could no longer ignore the obvious: our system of execution rests on great flaws and injustices.
Working to make sure that no innocent people are executed is a noble gesture, but it would be sheer fallacy to take this to mean that we should be one hundred percent positive that we are killing a guilty man. Instead we need to stop all executions.
Why do I oppose capital punishment? I am against it because it is the ultimate negation of our rights as individuals: no human has the right to live forever. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 3 of the Declaration states that "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person." Article 5 goes on to say, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Yet this is precisely what the death penalty accomplishes – it is an outright fundamental denial of human rights. Opposition to the death penalty is not based only on moral grounds, but also on civil, racial, financial and logical grounds.
A death penalty supporter can claim that someone sentenced to death is only done so after having a fair trial and being found guilty by a jury of his peers. But, the nature of this sentencing does not live up to the promises of a fair trial.
Looking at a few federal capital cases, the Department of Justice in 2000 discovered that the U.S. attorneys who would most often recommend the death penalty for defendants were from states with a higher number of executions, such as Texas, Virginia and Missouri.
But geographic discrimination is only one of the discrepancies in death penalty application. The most glaringly obvious form of bias is race. That same Justice Department report found that in the cases submitted for review to recommend the death penalty in the last five years, 75 percent involved minority defendants. Of this 75 percent, over half were black ("Pervasive Disparities Found in the Federal Death Penalty," New York Times, Sept. 11, 2000).
Only the blindest observer can miss the racial discrepancies apparent in our justice system. Compared to cases involving black murder victims, the defendant found guilty for murdering a white person is 2.3 to 9 times more likely to receive a death sentence. Whites and blacks are murder victims in roughly equal numbers, but since 1977 a staggering proportion of death row inmates, 80 percent, were executed for killing whites. Since 1977, by comparison, only 6 whites have been executed for the death of a black person.
A capital punishment supporter may still argue that the death penalty should be used in order to save the cost of keeping someone in prison for life. Yet typical capital case involves the judgment and sentencing, followed by state review, hearings and petitions. All of these procedures to ensure certainty in execution are costly, so much so that in California, capital trials cost six times more than other murder trials . Clearly, executing someone is not as quick as many believe, and this process is very expensive www.amnesty-usa.org/abolish/cost.html
By now the death penalty supporter has only one last argument to use: vengeance. This is the sentiment at the root of the argument that the family of the murder victim is owed the right to see their loved one's killer put to death.
While I cannot begin to imagine the grief one must feel after a loved one has been murdered, emotional reactions cannot be a foundation for our justice system.
The secondary argument that an execution will deter other people from murder has no logical grounds. Can supporters claim with a straight face that someone who is about to kill a person will stop and think, "I better not kill this person, because then I will be executed?" This is laughable, to say the least. (If the death penalty did deter possible criminals, then why on earth does anybody commit murder in Texas, where George W. Bush established himself as one of the greatest executioners of all time?)
In conclusion, I ask all of you to pause and consider the morals and the logic that our society exercises when it commits that most final and irreversible acts: the killing of one of its citizens.