In Brief—The death penalty is an anachronism that is not only immoral, it is tied to the 18th century traditional view that it was acceptable to exact an eye for an eye revenge for a variety of acts now scientifically known to be discredited. It’s time for America to join the civilized world in eliminating the death penalty.
An Eye for an Eye Renders America Blind—
Joe, a 19-year-old African-American with a record of several drug-related offenses was convicted in Massachusetts for having bound, beaten, raped and strangled a female drug enforcement agent. He was convicted by a jury in a federal trial. Although Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984, Joe is now on Death Row in a federal prison.
At the time of the crime, Joe was identified by an associate who allegedly saw Joe and the victim together shortly before the crime took place. Joe has consistently proclaimed his innocence claiming that he was asleep elsewhere at the time. Sperm taken from the victim was not introduced in evidence in the trial.
Wedded to the Past—
All five of the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) conservatives held in June 2015 that the state of Oklahoma could use a controversial three-drug method to execute several death row prisoners by lethal injection. Several state legislatures applauded the decision. The conservative justices ignored scientific research and relied on the phrase, “cruel and unusual punishment,” in the Eighth Amendment to uphold the method that will be used to execute the condemned men.
In dissent, Justice Breyer pointed out the conservative errors in upholding the three drug protocol. If abolition comes, it will probably come too late for the men scheduled to be executed.
To read about Justice Breyer’s impassioned dissent—and I strongly urge you do so—Click on the highlighted area.
Before presenting the reasons for abolishment of the death penalty, here are some facts. The United States is one of five nations that account for almost 90% of all executions: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA.
Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. Thirty-one still have the death penalty. Some are contemplating abolition while others, personified by Louisiana’s prosecutor Dale Cox, want to execute even more people. It’s a political thing based on fear of appearing soft on crime. It’s racist, too, but supporters will scream like mashed monkeys in denying that.
The death penalty is usually carried out using three methods: lethal injection (most), the gas chamber, and hanging. The three-drug combination used in lethal injection executions is made up of 1) a sedative designed to anesthetize the prisoner; 2) a paralytic designed to render the condemned unable to move; 3) an agent designed to stop the heart.
Now to return to the opening hypothetical—which is really quite realistic— and the reasons why the death penalty must be abolished.
Even without legal training, you can no doubt see the problems.
- The federal jury selection excludes people who oppose or are doubtful about the death penalty. Put simply, it loads the dice for a death verdict.
- Joe’s associate avoided prosecution by claiming Joe was there. Was he lying to save his own skin? Putting aside self-interest, research shows that eye-witness accounts are notoriously unreliable.
- This was a crime that would normally be tried in Massachusetts, but the U.S. seized on it to get a death penalty case. Trial in Massachusetts state courts was avoided.
- DNA evidence was available but not introduced in evidence. Joe’s claim of innocence went unexamined. Somewhere between 5% and 10% of accused criminals are exonerated through DNA testing, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Too many prosecutors are more interested in winning than in justice.
The SCOTUS Conservatives Strike Again—
Here are the problems with the SCOTUS decision.
- The problem is with #1 and #2, the sedative and the paralytic. The conservative justices approved all three agents even though abundant evidence from experts shows that the sedative doesn’t always work and the paralytic prevents the supposedly unconscious prisoner from moving.
- Relying solely on a phrase in the Eighth Amendment, the conservatives chose to dismiss racial bias, official misconduct, and the risk of killing an innocent person.
- The conservative five chose to overlook the possibility of innocence despite proven research figures that 5% to 10% of condemned prisoners have been shown by subsequent DNA tests to have been innocent of the crime that put them on Death Row.
- Justice Alito pointed out that opponents to the death penalty were themselves responsible for the drug problem by causing manufacturers to cease making a flawed but allegedly more effective drug. Thus, the state was forced to rely on a substitute sedative. Put another way, Justice Alito said there would be no problem if the original drug were available. This, of course, conveniently overlooks the fact that some condemned men were still conscious when the paralytic drug was injected.
- The conservatives ignored the fact that several death penalty states have now passed laws making the drugs used in lethal injection secret. Thus, the condemned do not know the drugs that will kill them.
- The conservatives asserted that because the constitution, an 18th century document based on 18th century knowledge, allowed capital punishment because the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” is part of the document.
Summing up, and assuming you have read my earlier piece on dumping the death penalty, it is clear that the five Republican politicians in black robes will twist themselves into pretzels to keep on killing prisoners regardless of countervailing scientific research and just plain common moral sense. It’s up to the voters to get beyond vengeance and dump the death penalty.