The Death Penalty
July 22, 2016
Ah, a nice light hearted topic for the weekend! Seriously, though, I just did my 7th Toastmaster’s speech yesterday (three more to go!). I was inspired by a book I read a while back to speak about the death penalty. The book is “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in the 1980s and has done incredible work. The book chronicles his work representing primarily death row inmates, the majority of whom were not guilty. It is an extremely compelling read.
I am pretty sure the United States is the only western democracy that still executes it’s citizens. Between 1976 and 2001, 664 people were put to death in this country. During the same period, 88 were released from death row BECAUSE THEY WERE FOUND TO BE INNOCENT! How many innocent people have we executed in this country? How many is too many?
When you take a look at how many of these people end up on death row though, it isn’t at all surprising that a high percentage of them don’t deserve to die. Many are convicted on eyewitness testimony even though numerous studies have found that eyewitness testimony is highly unreliable. The best example of this I came across is a woman who was raped and while she was being raped, she was determined to memorize the perpetrator’s face in case they caught him. She subsequently picked him out of a lineup and she was 100% certain it was him. Later DNA evidence was found and it turned out she was 100% wrong even though she was inches away from him for an extended period of time.
There are also many documented cases of death row inmates having been convicted on the basis of confessions that subsequently turned out to be coerced and untrue. Coroners also make mistakes in determining the cause of death and have their own biases.
Death row inmates have been convicted based on the testimony of snitches who traded testimony in exchange for lighter sentences or dropped charges even in cases where defendants had alibis.
The biggest problem in capital cases though is inconsistent (or nonexistent) representation. This country spends far more money on prosecutions than it does on providing defense for the indigent. There have been inmates who have been executed who were represented by attorneys who slept through their trials, were drunk during the trials or just plain incompetent. Such cases are rarely overturned on appeal. Even if new evidence surfaces proving innocence, the defendant can’t appeal unless it turns up within six months of conviction.
Finally, there is the issue of racism. Death row inmates are disproportionately black and poor and often convicted by all white juries. There are several examples of this in Just Mercy.
So for me, the bottom line is that we are making “God-like” decisions without the “God-Like” skills to make them.
I would like to live in a country where the execution of one innocent man is one too many.
The country is slowly coming around to this point of view and many states now ban capital punishment. The sooner the better in my opinion.