I posted in a previous blog about the systematic racism inherent in the application of capital punishment, but in doing so I may have missed the greater point:
Innocent people are very likely being executed–in which case race or any other group identifiers are a secondary concern. There is no way to be sure about how many wrongful executions have taken place because courts do not review the potential innocence of a convict after execution. Resources are allocated to those whose lives can still be saved.
The execution of Claude Jones is a prime example. Jones was executed in 2000 after George W. Bush’s clemency advisers failed to inform the Texas governor of a request for a DNA test. A hair allegedly coming from Claude Jones was the only evidence linking him to the crime scene. The DNA technology was not available at the time of Jones’ conviction and Gov. Bush had stayed previous executions to allow for DNA testing. In 2007, a judge ordered for a DNA test of the hair sample. The results were not definitive, but suggested that the hair sample did not come from Jones. (You can read more about Claude Jones and others who may have been wrongfully executed here.)
DNA evidence has played a key role in exonerating several death penalty convicts. Unfortunately, DNA testing is impossible in a great majority of cases. However, there are other evidential and procedural mistakes that lead to convictions of innocent people.
- Confessions have been obtained by police through coercive interrogation tactics.
- Faulty line up techniques and witness leading has strengthened inaccurate witness testimony.
- Other characteristics, such as gang affiliation, drastically affect conviction rates, irrespective of the evidence.
There is also the political angle. District attorneys, often elected to office, don’t want to look weak on crime. Convictions rates sell better than satisfying justice. An example of this is the injunction filed against Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley for retaliating against prosecutors who unionized because they were being pressured to convict people they believed to be innocent.
Perhaps the best argument against continuing with the death penalty is the staggering (even prohibitive) cost of capital cases. Simply put, it is far more expensive to execute a convict than to imprison that convict for life without parole. In fact, several states have repealed or discontinued capital punishment solely because of the expense.
The exorbitant cost (roughly US$30 million per execution) lies in the additional requirements imbued in death penalty cases. There are typically twice as many attorneys involved; there are more pre-trial motions; jury selection is more in -depth and jurors are usually sequestered; two trials are required, one for guilt and one for sentencing; the actual trial tends to take 3-5 times longer; then comes the series of Constitutionally-mandated appeals, during which time, inmates are held in maximum security on death row at an additional cost of roughly US$90,000 per year, per inmate for a duration generally lasting between 10-15 years. The appeals system is so backlogged it takes roughly 5 years just to get an attorney assigned (imagine if you’re innocent :().
This long, drawn out system full of multiple appeals is the source of much consternation for death penalty supporters. Unfortunately for them, there’s not much that can be done in this regard. The Fifth Amendment plainly states:
No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
So until the convicted have availed themselves of every legal process they are due, the state does not have the right to kill them. It might seem like a hassle but it’s for good reason. A Columbia Law School study showed that 68% of death penalty convictions are overturned on appeal and 82% of re-tried death penalty cases resulted in life sentences. In fact, only 1 in 10 death penalty convictions actually leads to an execution.
Death penalty cases are often motivated by the emotional response to the crime rather than a reasoned evaluation of the evidence. Once reason is applied, juries find that most of these cases do not meet the death penalty standard–because you don’t just want to be sure, you want to be absolutely-fucking-positive of guilt. That’s almost never the case, as the stats show.
We must also consider the toll death penalty convictions take on prosecutors and jurors. These people are responsible for answering for the murder of one person (or more) with the murder of another. We have to remember that in reality, capital punishment tests people’s conscience and moral compass. It’s one thing to pontificate in the abstract and quite another to make the decision about a person you can look in the eye and live with it.
I am sympathetic to seeing violent, merciless killers pay the ultimate price for what they’ve done. I would certainly want anyone who kills someone I care about to face execution. But I am not so thirsty for revenge that I’d risk murdering an innocent person.
The death penalty does not deter crime. It is extremely costly. It’s rife with mistakes, politics, and abuse. It’s bogged down with mandatory procedures. It takes an emotional toll on everyone involved. It has and will continue to kill innocent people. It is a revenge tool primarily used by third world nations and despotic regimes–most of the modern world has abandoned it. And in the end it does not bring the victims back.
If and when you cast your vote on this measure in November, it’s important to remember that it’s not about the morality of executing brutal murderers, it’s about whether or not you want to continue this terribly flawed, biased, and ineffective system.