The Slowest Fight: The Abolition of Capital Punishment

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In 2013, thirty-nine people were executed under outdated death penalty sentences handed out by juries and judges in the United States. In fact, in the United States, since 1976, nearly fourteen hundred people have been executed. The death penalty is an expensive, ineffective tool that does little to deter other individuals from committing crimes. The outdated practice is barbaric to its core and must be abolished if we are to create a genuinely fair and effective justice system. Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1847. In the next one hundred and sixty years, seventeen other states, with Maryland being the most recent, have abolished the death penalty.

The death penalty is inhumane because all human life is sacred. Do criminals commit horrendous crimes? Of course, but where do we as a society derive moral superiority, or even justice by executing someone? By using the death penalty we send a message that if you commit a heinous crime such as murder, you will be killed in turn. As a society that presumably strives to be as moral as possible this punishment is contradictory, and frankly downright un-American. Moreover, with the recent spate of executions gone wrong across the country, with one inmate in Ohio effectively drowning in their saliva for an hour before they died, the tenuous morality of state sanctioned executions continues to weaken. The death penalty treats its victims inhuman from start to finish, killing them in a manner that would be deemed cruel to animals.

Proponents of the death penalty constantly opine that it acts as a deterrent to other potential criminals. However, there are many key assumptions involved in such an argument that do not stand up to scrutiny. Such proponents presume that those who commit the crimes legally punishable by death are aware that execution is a possible punishment, which no evidence has ever shown. Moreover, studies that support this idea of deterrence confuse correlation with causation: they see data pointing to a decrease in crime rates from year to year and conclude that executions from the year before caused the decline. However, there is no study that has found the death penalty to have any demonstrable effect on crime rates. Rather, the decrease in crime is more likely attributable to better policing, higher incarceration rates and an ageing population. Moreover, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, states with capital punishment have 35 percent more murders per capita than states without. The argument that the death penalty deters individuals from committing murder or other capital crimes is, frankly, incorrect.

The death penalty is inherently biased against African-Americans. According to a Yale Law School study, African-Americans defendants are three times more likely to receive the death penalty, when the victim is white, than a white defendant against a white victim. A conviction recently overturned in South Carolina is perhaps the best example of this bias. chart

In 1944, an all-white jury convicted George Stinney, Jr. a fourteen-year-old boy, of killing two white girls. He was executed in the 1944. The police and prosecutor claimed that George confessed to the crime, but no confession was ever introduced at the trial, nor were George’s sisters allowed to testify that they had been with their brother at the time of the murders. Some will argue that Stinney’s case is an example from a bygone era, but African Americans are still disproportionately punished with the death penalty. An analysis of exisiting instructions to jury members on capital cases and on the quality of public defendants afforded to African-American defendants by the American Bar Association in Philadelphia concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates would not be on death row if they were white.

The death penalty is the most common form of human rights abuse worldwide and the United States is a leading perpetrator. Eighteen states have ended the use of the death penalty, without seeing an explosion in crime rates as criminals, nor has the cost of housing for life and prosecuting criminals, bankrupted states. In fact, according to Forbes “the annual cost of the death penalty in the state of California is $137 million compared to the cost of lifetime incarceration of $11.5 million.” These costs include lengthy prosecution it takes to convict an individual of a capital crime. Even sentences of life in prison, and the care associated with such a sentence, are cheaper than a capital punishment case. This money saved by abolishing the death penalty could be reinvested in programs to prevent crime or in better police training. The death penalty must be abolish in all fifty states if we as a nation truly wish to craft a justice system of the twenty-first century.

Amnesty International’s UChicago Chapter is proud to present a column focused important human rights developments globally, nationally, and locally. If you are interested in contributing to this column, please contact rienayu@uchicago.edu.

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