Thursday, January 21, 2010

To Kill or Not To Kill -- THAT Is The Question

The United States is one of the few countries left in the world that executes people. In fact, more than 92% of the world's executions in 2008 were carried out in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and the United States, putting us solidly in the company of some folks whose governments we often criticize.

One of the reasons the rest of the world has moved in the direction of other options (because there are other options; it's not as though we're deciding between execution and...say...sending the person in question on an all-expense paid vacation to Cancun or something) is that legal systems are NOT fool-proof. Mistakes are made. Judgments are fallible. Politics get involved. Even so-called "eye witnesses" have been demonstrated in far too many cases to be hopelessly incapable of correctly identifying the supposed perpetrator or even accurately describing what actually happened (as opposed to what they thought they saw). So what are we to do? The obvious answer is: nothing that cannot be undone.

Another reason the rest of the world has left execution as a reasonable practice behind is that it is not reasoned. In other words, as "rational" as death penalty proponents want to make it sound, murder is irrational. It is not, in my opinion, a rational act to take a life. Many of us would be hard put to eat meat if we had to kill everything we ate. And the idea of killing a human is so repugnant to most of us that war sends even the most hard core soldier into such a la-la land of psychological and emotional complications that many of those who go to war never fully recover. My work in the prison movement in the 1970's convinced me that people who kill were typically either impaired by alcohol or drugs at the time (which doesn't make it okay, but does suggest the irrational nature of the act) or they were, in fact, straight, but mentally ill enough that they were unable to make a "rational" decision. My point is that, if killing is irrational, then there's no way to make execution rational. It's killing. Hel-lo!

A third reason the rest of the world has moved on from the primitive practice of execution is that it doesn't deter crime. That is supposed to be why it's done, right? To discourage others from killing? But U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics indicate, for example, that the South -- where 80% of the executions in the U.S. occur -- has the highest regional murder rate in the nation. And, conversely, the states where there is no death penalty have the lowest. In fact, my understanding is that, in states that have abolished the death penalty and then reinstated it, the murder rate actually goes down when there are no executions and back up when they begin again. Some think this is because the message to the person in the street is: murder is a way to solve a problem.

But one of the strongest reasons I am opposed to executions is that African-Americans are SO much more likely to be on death row than people who look like me. And, while many fair-skinned folks would like to believe that this means we're just nicer people, what it actually means is that more of us have the money to get decent lawyers and, in a White supremacist system, are simply far less likely to be slapped with the ultimate sanction. It's a matter of public record that the socially-constructed, political notion of race heavily skews what happens to people -- whether guilty or innocent -- caught up in the criminal justice system. African-Americans are more likely to be stopped, rousted, arrested, taken to jail, convicted, sentenced to prison, and sentenced to the death penalty than European-Americans -- even when they've done no more than the White folks do without receiving the same punishments. For example, I have in my file an article from the front page of the Tampa Tribune comparing the cases of two 17-year-old males (one Black, one White) with the same background histories and in the courts at the same time a few years ago. The White boy robbed four crowded stores (one a large grocery store) using a loaded 9mm automatic. His punishment: two years on house arrest and a few more on probation. The Black youth was convicted of robbing two individuals on the street (in separate incidents) with a BB gun and was sentenced to six years in a maximum security adult prison. See what I'm saying? Now apply that same disparity to death row and think about it for a minute.

In any case, the arguments against murdering people and calling it "justice" have been made better elsewhere, but it is in the individual situations that it becomes so agonizing. There is, for example, the case of Troy Davis, on death row in Georgia for the shooting death of a young White boy with no facts connecting him to the crime whatsoever except that he was one of fifty kids on a bus. Why was he -- and none of the others -- charged when none of them had a gun? And, of course, there's the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, edging ever closer to execution for the shooting of a police officer because he is a Black Panther leader and a journalist in a society where either distinction can make you personna non grata. Here's the story:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

The current news in Mumia Abu-Jamal's situation is daunting. The conservative U.S. Supreme Court this week refused to make a ruling that might have brought relief in the matter. So public pressure has become crucial in fighting for this man's life. Consequently, a petition to President Barack Obama has been drafted and is now collecting signatures. The petition asks the President to call for the abolition of the death penalty globally, which would remove from Mumia and all other such prisoners the spectre of impending death by murder. If you agree with this action, please sign the petition today.
For an astute take on the death penalty, complete with comprehensive citations, read this.


Reggie said...

I'm a firm believer in the death penalty; but I also believe that there are more than a few innocent men behind bars.

Sometimes our justice system is deaf, dumb and blind.

Changeseeker said...

Welcome, Reggie. Thanks for dropping by. But I'm a little curious. If you believe there are more than a few innocent men behind bars, how could you also be a firm believer in the death penalty? I mean, all the men (and women) in prison have been legally convicted of a crime in a court of law -- even the innocent ones. So how can we risk executing someone who might after all not be guilty? I'm just saying is all...

Fannie Lou said...

Reggie - have you read Executed on a Technicality by David Row? He's a death row defense lawyer who was supportive of the death penalty originally, but is now against it do to his experiences.

He makes the following points in his book - some of which Changeseeker has already noted

a)what determines which .25% of murderers get the death penatly is not primarily what the convicted did but what their lawyers or the courts did or didn't do (i.e. how the system fails), and of course, getting a competent lawyer depends on class, if you're poor and your court appointed lawyer (and this happens) might actually be asleep during your trial - and there's nothing you can do about it
b)confessions are often coerced - of the men who have been freed based on DNA evidence, 20% confessed
c)innocent people get killed, and most murder cases are not predicated on DNA, so for all the innocent people who have been let out on DNA, there are more who are innocent and cannot prove it
d)in the precedent setting case of Leonel Herrera the Supreme court ruled that innocence is not enough for a federal court to overturn a state conviction - the inmate must prove that in addition to his innocence there has also been prosecutorial misconduct or another constitutional violation
d)race is a huge factor on whether or not you get the death penalty

Changeseeker said...

Great comment, Fannie Lou. (b) and (d) are especially important -- and even startling -- information.