The Dilemma of the Death Penalty
Recently, Connecticut became the 17th state and the fifth in as many years to outlaw the death penalty. In November, California may join them as well when voters will decide on an initiative about the fate of the death penalty. Retribution for a crime lies in a complex web of factors and laws. For some, outlawing the capital punishment serves as an impediment to justice. Whereas others advocate the complete abolishment of a sentence they view as barbaric and inhumane. Regardless the rate at which is beginning to diminish as some of the injustices have generated media attention.
In 1972, the Supreme Court for a period of time outlawed the use of the death penalty in the case of Furman v. Georgia. The court ruled that it violated the eighth amendment and was cruel and unusual punishment. This made states across the country review their statutes and implement a system that made the doling out of the punishment less arbitrary. By 1976, the court overturned their stance on the issue in Gregg v. Georgia and ruled that “in extreme criminal cases….the careful and judicious use of the death penalty may be appropriate if carefully employed.”
Perhaps, the most prominent death penalty case in recent memory involved the execution of Troy Davis. The national media reported on and brought to the forefront an issue that garnered attention worldwide. Davis, convicted of murdering a police officer in 1989 made numerous appeals to no avail and ultimately was denied clemency. However, prominent figures like former President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu became advocates of his cause and stirred a conversation about the merits of the death penalty.
Views regarding capital punishment vary drastically not only across different countries, but within the United States as well. The United Nations has pushed to eliminate capital punishment across boundaries, issuing a moratorium in 2007 though it is not legally binding. So when Connecticut eliminated the death penalty, the UN applauded their decision; however they mention that “even though the imposition of the death penalty fell by around half between 2001 and 2011, the US was still ranked by human rights non-governmental organizations among the top five countries carrying out executions last year. The other four are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.” Overall, around two out of three countries have entirely banned the death penalty and 141 overall have not used it as a punishment at sentencing. Even across the United States the use of the death penalty varies drastically.
Though only one in three states officially bans the death penalty, the prevalence of that sentencing is highly dependent on the state. States in the South accounted for 87% of all state executions in the country last year and for 82% since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas have accounted for 54% of those. The Northeastern states have accounted for only one percent of all executions since reinstatement. However, not all the states have completely abolished the practice. Though states like Colorado, Montana, and New Hampshire have only perpetrated one execution each, they have not abolished and do not have any immediate plans to abolish the death penalty.
An interesting state in this discussion is California. With 723 inmates currently on death row, the voting on the initiative in November will be of great intrigue to proponents on both sides. Executive Director of the Death Penalty Research Center Richard Dieter, a center to abolishing the punishment says “repeal in California would be a huge development; just getting it on the ballot is big.” Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles District Attorney is against the initiative, he says “this would essentially eliminate death penalty for the cop killers, the baby killers and the serial killers that are among us.” Yet, the state has executed 13 inmates overall, even with over 700 in line to be executed. If the initiative were to pass, those on death row will have their sentences commuted to life without the possibility of parole. Cooley’s statement that those in favor of the initiative “want to let these people live out their lives gracefully and expensively, with us taking care of their healthcare bill, fine and dandy, but some of these criminals have forfeited their right to be on the face of the earth” has stirred critics of the death penalty who point out the fallacies in Cooley’s argument. Namely, that the cost of the death penalty when accounting for all the judicial fees accumulates to over $40 billion since 1978.
In the last decade further investigations into death penalty cases have revealed some disturbing trends in that in numerous cases the sentencing was not justified. James Liebman, a professor at Columbia University, published a book titled “Los Tocayos Carlos.” In this book, he discovers not only that the man, Carlos DeLuna, was wrongly sentenced and executed, he also finds the real killer in a 1983 Corpus Christi, TX death. The accompanying website outlines all the sources and evidence the research team found, truly a harrowing finding in a case where DeLuna was executed in 1989. Furthermore in Texas, Dallas County alone has uncovered 30 wrongful convictions since 2001, the most of any county in the country.
Legislators in several other states have taken notice in the rise of false convictions in capital punishment convictions. In Georgia, House Democrats are sponsoring a bill to eliminate the death penalty and note that “the imposition of the death sentence has become increasingly problematic as more persons convicted of serious crimes are being found innocent by new evidence, often years or decades after their sentence was imposed, and it is impossible to believe that such errors are limited to noncapital offenses.” In Ohio, legislators have also pushed for repealing the death penalty, but the bill has not made it to a vote in seven months. Kentucky has examined its own protocols on how effective capital punishment is in their state and found their results to be less than satisfactory. In order to surmount their difficulties with prosecution they address the underlying concerns in a bill that made it up from the house to the senate. Basing their legislation on the American Bar Association’s Kentucky Death Penalty Assessment Report which
“examined all death sentences imposed in the Commonwealth since 1976 and found that, as of November 2011, 78 people have been sentenced to death, and further, that 52 of these individuals have had a death sentence overturned on appeal by Kentucky or federal courts, or have been granted clemency, which is an error rate of approximately 60 percent. Moreover, the assessment found that capital prosecutions occur in far more cases than result in death sentences. The assessment report concluded that, “This places a significant judicial and financial burden on the Commonwealth’s courts, prosecutors, defenders, and the criminal justice system at large, to treat many cases as death penalty cases, despite the fact that cases often result in acquittal, conviction on a lesser charge, or a last minute agreement to a sentence less than death.”
North Carolina has made waves in handling the conundrum of how to eliminate bias from sentencing. In 2009, the Racial Justice Act was signed into law. The act was made to review racial discrimination in jury selection. If the evidence suggested that racial discrimination was a factor in the sentence of a death penalty, the court may overturn that decision and reduce it to life in prison. The first man whose sentence was reduced was Marcus Robinson, when the judge found the evidence sufficient to take the man off of death row. Researchers at Michigan State investigated the process behind his incrimination and sentencing and found that “prosecutors were more than twice as likely to strike qualified blacks from serving on a jury as members of other races in North Carolina death penalty cases in the 20-year-period from 1990 to 2010.” Furthermore, they went back further into the history and “the data reveal[ed] that defendants in cases from 1990 to 2009 were significantly more likely to be charged and sentenced to death if at least one of the victims was white.”
This week the fate of the Act may be in jeopardy as the Republican Controlled North Carolina Senate has passed a bill that would strictly limit the effects of the act. Governor Beverly Perdue has until July 1st to decide on whether or not to veto the bill, but with the current makeup of the State House and Senate, the veto may be overridden. The ACLU is urging supporters of the Act to pressure the five Democratic members of the House that broke rank to not override the veto, if there is one.
As a whole, Americans support the use of the death penalty. The approval numbers are in a state of decline, but over 60% of all Americans commend its use. According to a Gallup poll, 66% of Americans believe death penalty is moral and support it. 49% of Americans say the death penalty is not used enough, and only 21% of Americans say it’s used too often. Every demographic group favor death penalty for a person convicted of murder, with Conservatives being most supportive at 81% and those with a postgraduate degree least supportive at 57%.
The federal government is also in support of using the death penalty in extenuating circumstances. Conflicts arise between state and federal regulations in dealing with sentencing about crimes that surpass state boundaries. Currently, the federal government is seeking to extract an inmate from Rhode Island for federal prosecution based on the Interstate Agreement on Detainers. However, Governor Lincoln Chafee has refused to hand over the inmate and the case is currently being appealed to the US Supreme Court. Chafee says in a statement that “states have the right to refuse to transfer prisoners in their custody for public policy reasons. As a matter of public policy, Rhode Island opposes the death penalty for any crime.”
The moral complexity on how to sufficiently punish those ruled guilty of unspeakable crimes becomes problematic to navigate. The fate of the friends and family members of victims has to be taken into account in regards to retribution. However, the disturbing trends in the allocation of the punishment makes the practice both inefficient and in many cases highly regrettable.
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