Posted December 31, 2009
When I was in college in the 1950s, I read everything I could on the death penalty — including Albert Camus’ essay — and decided the barbaric practice needed to be eliminated. By the 1960s it was outlawed as cruel and unusual punishment, but it made a vicious comeback when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.
So it is great news to hear that, once again, the death penalty is on its way out! A report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) concluded that death sentences across the United States have dropped by 60% over the number of executions carried out in the 1990s. Fifteen states have abolished the sentence and several more almost passed such legislation.
There are two reasons for this turn around.
First, since 1973 there have been 139 people sentenced to death who have been exonerated, including nine just this year. More and more people have been forced to realize prosecution cases are not air tight. Eye witnesses are often unreliable but more importantly, in their desire to crack the case officers frequently coerce the suspect to “confess,” or badger eye witnesses into making positive identifications.
In reading a couple of investigative articles the New York Times has run in the last couple of years, it’s obvious that many on death row are there because they had inadequate counsel. The Effective Death Penalty Act, passed during the Clinton Administration, closed off possibilities of bringing new evidence to the attention of higher courts after the original trial and sentencing.
Second, carrying out an execution is expensive. The economic crisis has broken the back of state budgets. As state officials search for programs that can be cut or privatized, they are reluctantly coming to view capital punishment as a seldom-used and expensive operation that can be eliminated.
In the past police and other conservative forces stoutly maintained that the death penalty was a deterrent to crime, but in a 2009 nationwide poll of police chiefs the death penalty came up at the bottom of their list of priorities. They rated it as one of the most inefficient ways to fight crime!
I’m rooting for Troy Davis in his fight to overturn his conviction and death sentence, in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. I’m also rooting for the elimination of the death penalty and a broader discussion about the reasons for crime. Anyone who has been in prison or who has visited relatives and friends there knows the ugly truth: that it’s the poor, the young and people of color who are disproportionately imprisoned. The most vulnerable have been targeted rather than protected and encouraged. That fact stands an indictment of our throw-away culture.