When I was growing up, my parents were big supporters of the death penalty, and therefore I was too. Until just a few years ago, I was one of those people who believed that people who kill other people should be given the ultimate punishment. If you take a life, your life will be taken from you.
But during one of my college classes, a woman came to speak to us about the death penalty. She told us about how it disproportionately punishes poor people of color, and how sometimes even innocent people fall victim to the system. I was shocked to hear almost everything she told us, and when I went home I did a little research to find out more.
Here’s what I learned:
The death penalty really began after the Civil War with lynching, which was usually carried out by a mob to
punish an alleged transgressor, and intimidate or control a population of people. This means of control was often used by politically dominant people, in order to suppress social challengers. The Tuskegee Institute recorded that between 1882 and 1968 there were 1,297 lynchings of whites and 3,446 lynchings of blacks.
Today, lynchings are illegal, but David Jacobs, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University, said “The death penalty has become a sort of legal replacement for the lynchings in the past.” It might not surprise some readers to know that studies have shown that states that sentence the most criminals to death were the states that had the most lynchings in the past.
In 1972, the Supreme Court suspended the death penalty. However, it was reinstated in 1976, and 29 states currently use the death penalty. As of 2012, 21 states and the District of Columbia have banned capital punishment.
Here are five reasons to oppose the death penalty:
- The death penalty is applied in a racially biased manner. African Americans make up only about13 percent of the U.S. population, but 43 percent of death row prisoners are African American. Of over 18,000 executions that have occurred in the U.S., only 42 were of a white person convicted of killing a black person. And although blacks constitute approximately 50 percent of murder victims each year, 80 percent of the victims in death penalty cases were white, and only 14 percent were black.
- The death penalty punishes the poor. Over 90 percent of defendants charged with capital crimes are indigent and cannot afford an experienced criminal defense attorney. They are forced to use inexperienced, underpaid and overworked lawyers.
- The death penalty inevitably kills innocent people. Since 1973, 123 people in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. Troy Davis and Cameron Todd Willingham were both largely believed to be innocent, but were executed nevertheless in 2011 and 2004, respectively.
- Studies have not been able to prove that the death penalty deters violent crime. Over the past 10 years, studies have attempted to prove the death penalty deters murder. But as Professor Jeffrey Fagan of the Colombia Law School notes, these studies contain so many “serious flaws and omissions” that “this work falls well within the unfortunate category of junk science.” Additionally, the South, where 80 percent of all executions take place, has a higher murder rate than the North.
- The death penalty is in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which outlaws “cruel and unusual punishment.”
(Information from Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s five reasons to oppose the death penalty, click the link for more information.)
According to Amnesty International, 90 percent of the world’s countries do not actively use the death penalty, and 51 percent have abolished the practice. Therefore, the United States is in the company of countries such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, China, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen in its use.
Here is a link to scheduled executions through 2015: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/us-scheduled-executions.
“On both sides of the divide, whether the death is by lynching or by execution, similar emotions are aroused. Outside the prison, crowds gather to cheer when the hearse leaves Georgia’s home for its electric chair signaling that a death has occurred. Those cheers are not unlike those of the hordes who took excursion trains to witness lynchings.” – William S. McFeely, former history professor and current visiting scholar and associate member of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department.
Lastly, I want to point out that the death penalty is state-sanctioned murder. In fact — although I have not personally verified this — I have frequently heard that after a prisoner is executed, his or her death certificate cites the cause of death as “state-ordered legal homicide.”