President's Column: Taking a Stand Against the Death Penalty

Taking a Stand Against the Death Penalty

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It would be a great day in our nation’s history if we joined the other enlightened nations of the world and abolished the death penalty. I am amazed that the United States, the world leader in so many areas, finds it morally acceptable to follow the notion of “an eye for an eye.” Capital punishment is state-authorized murder, and any form of murder is immoral and should not be tolerated.

On a recent trip to Chicago with my 12-year-old granddaughter, Sofia, I was listening to the radio as it gave the details of the execution of Saddam Hussein. Sofia asked what was happening. After pondering some, I said, “Saddam Hussein did some very bad things and he even killed a lot of people.” I’m sure the death penalty has never been discussed with her before. I explained that he had received a trial and his punishment was that he would be executed. After a moment of thought, Sofia said it was wrong to punish anyone by killing them. It would be better to lock him up forever so he would always think about the bad things he did and everyone else would be able to always look at him so they wouldn’t do bad things. Maybe a 12-year-old gets it and our nation doesn’t.

Contrary to what many death penalty proponents believe, there is no evidence of a deterrent effect achieved by the existence of the death penalty. The 38 states that have the death penalty aren’t issuing press releases about their low murder rates. Why not? Because the murder rates in those states aren’t lower than the rates in states that have abolished the death penalty. Moreover, if having the death penalty were a deterrent, the murder rate of the United States would be lower than that of European countries that do not have the death penalty. Our murder rate is higher, however, so where is the deterrence?

The possibility that we might execute an innocent person should be reason enough to ban the death penalty. An execution is one mistake that cannot be corrected. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 124 people in 25 states have been released from death row since 1973 with evidence of their innocence. The most recent exoneration — Curtis McCarty of Oklahoma — occurred just a few weeks ago. The fact that mistakes have been made should come as no surprise. After all, we know that eyewitness identification is sometimes unreliable and “confessions” are sometimes the result of questionable police interrogation techniques. And let’s not forget about the problems that surfaced a few years ago at the Houston and Oklahoma crime labs, including falsified test results and the fashioning of reports to match police theories.

The ACLU reports that 1,058 people have been executed since 1973. Coupled with 124 exonerations, this means, as one writer put it, for every eight people executed, we have found one person on death row who never should have been convicted.

Is there anyone out there brave enough to argue that the death penalty is applied fairly? Of course not. We don’t execute everyone who is convicted of murder. Prosecutors determine when the state will seek the death penalty. Also, a defendant’s chances of receiving the death penalty depend on where the murder was committed, the quality of the defense team, and the racial background of the defendant and victim. Black defendants are more likely to receive a death sentence when the victim is white, but white defendants are sentenced to death with less frequency if the victim is black.

What we have is a punishment that is ineffective as a deterrent. In addition, it is rife with inequity and the risk of mistake. Capital punishment is vengeance for vengeance’s sake. It is a state-sponsored paradigm that diminishes rather than enhances the value of human life. My 12-year-old granddaughter has figured it out. One day, perhaps, everyone else will figure it out too.

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