While the United States has the image of a free democratic state,—one that values rights and freedoms more than any other nation in the history of the world—one entity sets the U.S. apart from the rest of the civilized world. There is one institution that is still prevalent in the U.S. that, in the eyes of several of the world’s nongovernmental organizations (NGO), would disqualify the U.S. as a protector of human rights.
This institution is where the dilemma of crime and punishment clashes with the constitution and with the foundation of rights and freedom that the U.S. has built on since 1776. I am talking about capital punishment, more commonly known as the death penalty.
The death penalty in America has always had its own unique place. It has been around since country’s inception. The death penalty exists at the federal level, as well as in the individual states.
While the punishment comes up for debate every so often and has gone through a few landmark Supreme Court cases, it normally sits in the back corner of political discourse. It doesn’t come up very often because the states where there is heavy opposition to it have mostly abolished it, and the states where it remains have high support ratings for it.
It was temporarily suspended in the mid-1970s, but then it was reinstated in its current form. There have been 1,271 executions since its reinstatement in 1976, and today, 34 states (plus the federal government) still have the death penalty as a possible punishment.
The death penalty is entirely contradictory to the U.S. Constitution and the image that America wants to project to the rest of the world. We are currently the only civilized nation to still use the death penalty, and the other large nations still employing the practice are Iran and China. We look to distance ourselves from Iran and China every day except on this issue.
There are scores of statistics that show the death penalty has extreme biases against poor and minority defendants. The statutes on if and when it is used vary from state to state, and whether the district attorney will seek the punishment can be extremely arbitrary. It is generally based upon the emotion and politicizing of the particular case.
However, all of these factors and statistics don’t carry the weight of what should be the most obvious pitfall of capital punishment: The chance that you will execute an innocent man.
Death penalty supporters and law/order conservatives will tell you that it is impossible. They will speak of the greatness of our criminal justice system and its appeals process for capital cases (which they then proceed to complain about the cost of). They will complain of “ACLU liberals” having a vendetta against the death penalty and act insulted at the suggestion that they are more likely to execute a poor repeat criminal with a public defender than they are the son of a rich, powerful man with a Johnny Cochran-type lawyer.
In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death by the state of Texas for setting a fire that murdered his family. Despite findings that the evidence used to convict him might be false, Gov. Rick Perry still ordered the execution to proceed. In the years since, despite investigations being squashed by Perry’s office, numerous experts have said it is impossible for Willingham to have committed the crime, and that the evidence shown at trial was “complete junk science.”
Perry is currently running for President of the United States, and he grins from ear to ear whenever the death penalty is mentioned. On a side note, Perry has overseen the executions of 236 inmates in his 10 years as Governor of Texas, the most out of any governor in history.
Also, we have a more recent case. On September 21st, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia. Davis, a black man, was convicted of murdering a white off-duty police officer. Despite no physical evidence, 7 of 9 witnesses completely recanting and pleas from across the political spectrum for a stay, Georgia executed Davis.
We may never know if either man is innocent, but that isn’t the point and doesn’t matter. The fact that a nation we tout as the greatest in the world can execute two men when there is extreme doubt is chilling to the bone. Since 1976, there have been 1,241 executions and 129 death row exonerations. Looking at these two numbers, it is nearly impossible that an innocent man hasn’t been executed, and that more innocent people aren’t sitting on death row now.
In reality, not even the most advanced, state-of-the-art justice system on Earth could be 100 percent, and ours is far from that ideal. The only way to make sure an innocent man is never put to death is to abolish capital punishment.
The law-and-order conservatives (who also ironically call themselves pro-life) will push back hard on that. In certain states—for instance, Texas—they take a sadistic pride in “the ultimate justice.” However, how can it be justice if there is a chance for an innocent to be executed?
It is in fact never about justice. It is about filling a bloodthirsty desire for revenge. No matter the cost. No matter the risk. It is about carrying over their beliefs of hard-line individualism and social Darwinism into the criminal justice system. No matter the casualty.
This ideology very well might have cost at least two men their lives in recent years. We must stop it from happening again. We must abolish capital punishment in America.