By Elektra Papathanasiou-Goldstein '20
On June 26, 1980, Larry Griffin, a 41-year-old African-American man, was convicted of murder and executed a year later. After his death, an investigation by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund demonstrated one of the injured victims of the shooting stated that Griffin was innocent but was ignored. Instead, an unreliable eyewitness gave a false testimony, confirmed to be lying by the first police officer at the scene. Not only was the wrong person convicted, but the real criminals were never brought to justice ("NAACP Report"). This case is one of the strongest demonstrations of a miscarriage of justice: the execution of innocent people, often minorities, in the name of the law. The possibility of error inherent in administering the death penalty should be enough to deem it an unjust practice, but its implementation also disproportionately affects minorities. To serve as a more just government to its citizens, the United States must abolish capital punishment.
The very notion that innocent people may be executed negates any supposed benefits of the death penalty – the risk of error in an irreversible death sentence is unacceptable. Considering the risk of a wrongful conviction is so crucial to the death penalty debate because of the irrevocable finality of capital punishment. Since 1973, 164 people on death row have been exonerated after they were shown to be innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced to die, some only a few days before their execution (“Capital Punishment”). Moreover, a 2014 study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that about four percent of death-row inmates are innocent of the crime for which they are sentenced (Sarat). Even if seen as justifiable, the implementation of the death penalty in the current imperfect justice system causes a concerning number of innocent victims. Inadequate legal representation, police and prosecutorial misconduct, or mistaken eyewitness testimonies are not uncommon and can contribute to a wrongful conviction that has the effect of unjustly ending a life (“Death Penalty and Innocence”). Capital punishment forever deprives an individual of due process of law, such as the opportunity to benefit from new evidence or laws that might mitigate a conviction or exonerate them. Miscarriages of justice in capital punishment cases result in the government ultimately taking the life of an innocent citizen, essentially committing the same offense it condemned. While capital punishment remains part of the legal procedure, any miscarriage of justice caused is irredeemable, ultimately resulting in the government taking the life of an innocent citizen, essentially committing the offense it condemned.
Moreover, capital punishment causes racial bias to become a fatal defect in a justice system that already disproportionately affects minorities. A recent Amnesty Report confirmed the impact of racial injustice on capital punishment convictions: although blacks and whites are murder victims in nearly equal numbers of crimes, eighty percent of these people were executed for murders involving white victims. In addition, over twenty percent of black defendants executed were convicted by all-white juries, an unsettling reality of the racism underlying death penalty cases ("Race and the Death Penalty"). Another study by the University of North Carolina revealed that race plays a role in deciding who receives the death penalty -- defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims. Dr. Unah, who conducted the study, affirmed: "No matter how the data was analyzed, the race of the victim always emerged as an important factor in who received the death penalty." According to a study commissioned by the Governor of Maryland, “black offenders who kill white victims are at greater risk . . . they are substantially more likely to be charged by the state’s attorney with a capital offense” (“The Case Against the Death Penalty”). Abolishing capital punishment would prevent worst possible outcome of racially biased convictions.
Proponents of the penalty argue that it defends justice by forcing criminals to suffer an appropriate punishment for their crime, while also claiming it serves as an effective deterrent (BBC Ethics). However, this interpretation of justice as “an eye for an eye” is dangerous as the world begins to deviate from deleterious retributive justice. As justice systems move towards rehabilitation, laws should not favor retribution, nor serve to enact revenge. Capital punishment is state vengeance in its simplest form, and doesn’t belong in modern developed justice systems which value rehabilitation.
In regards to the death penalty’s deterrence power, statistics have repeatedly disproven this assertion. Southern states carry out more than eighty percent of executions but have a higher murder rate than any other region – Texas has the most executions in the country but its homicide is twice that of Wisconsin, one of the first states to abolish the penalty (“Does the Death Penalty Serve as a Deterrent for Crime?). The ACLU’s position on deterrence explains why legal consequences don’t impede most offenders from action: “Capital crimes are committed during moments of great emotional stress or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, when logical thinking has been suspended . . . violence is inflicted by persons unable to appreciate the consequences . . . if the crime is planned, the criminal’s primary concern is escaping arrest, and conviction.” (“The Case Against the Death Penalty”). Capital punishment is an endorsement of outdated retributive justice and has no overall deterrent effect.
The US government should eradicate capital punishment primarily due to the risk of error and discrimination of minorities that it inherently entails. Fortunately, the practice is decreasing in the United States, with four states abolishing the penalty in the past four years and many that authorize it impose it far less. Numbers of death sentences per year have decreased by half in the last 10 years (“Capital Punishment”). However, thirty states still have it and the US remains one of very few developed countries that continues to condone it. The government has the duty to advance its justice system and adhere to reasonable, primarily undisputed international standards. Global evolving standards of decency cannot be dismissed, and the United States must engage with the world not only as a major power, but also by following other countries by ending capital punishment.