Death penalty is a black mark on our nation

U.S. sentencing its citizens to death is immoral

CACorrections | Wikipedia | Photo Courtesy | A room where lethal injections are performed is a horrifying reminder of reality.

The death penalty is a surprisingly controversial topic still in this country. While defining moral rights and wrongs can be a murky business, by and large, I would say most people can say with confidence that murder is wrong — except of course when it’s government-sanctioned.

Moral duplicity aside, the fraught system surrounding the death penalty was highlighted just a few weeks ago when Ernest Lee Johnson was put to death on Oct. 5 in Mo. In 1994, Johnson killed three people in a convenience store, and while this crime is terrible, it was committed by an individual with intellectual disabilities.

Despite requests of clemency from the Pope and two members of congress, a diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, communication skills described as “less than those of a five year-old” and signs of remorse, Johnson was killed by the state of Mo.; his final message being, “For all the people that has prayed for me I thank them.” 

Johnson’s case is a heartbreaking example of what some of the worst consequences of the death penalty can be. Still, even while ignoring all the cases where the innocent and intellectually disabled are put to death, even when guilt is absolutely clear and the crime is horrendous, the death penalty as a practice is still wrong.

The innocent and disabled

Of course, the idea behind the death penalty is that it will deter future crime. While the accuracy of deterrence will be addressed later, it’s important to acknowledge how innocence in death penalty cases and intellectual disabilities complicate matters considerably.

The idea of being put to death for terrible crimes is meant to chill us to such a point that we would never even consider attempting to commit them; however, what is really terrifying is the not-so-infrequent reality of innocent people being put to death after wrongful convictions.

It will never be clear just how many innocent individuals have been killed via the death penalty. However, the Death Penalty Information Center has done considerable research that’s found at least 20 individuals who, upon further inspection, were likely innocent.

The stories of these innocent individuals are distressing — fathers falsely accused of killing their children, citizens tied to crimes only by the color of their skin and so many of them who insisted on their innocence right until the point where they were killed. It is in this way that, far from showing our nation not to commit terrible crimes, we show the world the brokenness of our system and the injustice in killing our own citizens.

Add to this the 44 individuals with intellectual disabilities that were put to death between 1976 and 2002, and you paint a very depressing picture of our history with the death penalty. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the constitution. Still, Johnson was killed only a few weeks ago.

In the same way we look back with shame at those 44 individuals who were sanctioned to die by the hands of a system they couldn’t possibly understand, we will look back at the practice of killing individuals at all as barbaric.

The death penalty is ineffective and expensive

It would be one thing if the argument could be made that the death penalty, despite its medieval proceedings, was ultimately effective at deterring crime and saving lives — but it’s not. 

Research has shown that, despite its most supportive advocates’ claims, there is no connection between the presence of the death penalty and murder rates. The foundation of death penalty support rests in its ability to deter crime and serve as retributive justice. Without this deterrence then, the death penalty just serves as a backwards suffering system that pushes the eye-for-an-eye mentality to its most intense meaning.

Then of course there’s the recognition that the Venn diagram of individuals who support the death penalty but don’t support higher taxes is often a circle, despite how expensive the death penalty is to tax payers. It’s been found that the average cost of the present death penalty system runs at about $137 million a year versus the $11.5 million a year system that has a maximum penalty of life in prison.

“Life in prison is often a far more daunting punishment than a death sentence, yet we result to the latter due to an impaired reliance on cowboy justice and retributive lawmaking.”

The death penalty require costs that go far beyond that of other forms of punishment. Taxpayers usually bear the brunt of the financial burden for attorneys, experts, jury selection, long trials, increased security and repeated appeals because death penalty cases are so intensive.

The disproportionate consequences

Another flaw in the sentencing people to death is the way individuals of color are disproportionately sentenced and treated. Despite making up less than 28% of the U.S. population, since 1976, people of color accounted for 43% of total executions and 55% of those awaiting execution.

Since 2002, 12 people have been executed when the defendant was white and the victim was black, but 178 black defendants have been executed when the victim was white. And these statistics aren’t able to capture the way the criminal justice system is flawed in how it targets and punishes people of color at higher rates.

An end to the death penalty

Life in prison is often a far more daunting punishment than a death sentence, yet we result to the latter due to an impaired reliance on cowboy justice and retributive lawmaking. 

If the death penalty doesn’t decrease murder, is capable of punishing innocents and the disabled, is extremely expensive and racist, what is left to justify killing our citizens? Pride? Retaliation? Other emotions of playground politics?

The death penalty should never have existed in a nation that touts its freedom and liberty, and it certainly shouldn’t remain in the year 2021.

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