31 July 2009

Death Penalty Should be Abolished in NC, Elsewhere

It’s been two years since anyone was executed in North Carolina. However, in the past few weeks, several legislative actions and court decisions point to executions resuming in the Tar Heel State in the near future - although the same issues exist today that prompted the State's self-imposed moratorium two years ago.

What is clear is that our system of capital punishment remains far from perfect. Since the moratorium on executions was put in place, three innocent men were freed from death row in North Carolina. They served a combined 41 years and faced death for crimes they did not commit.

The system is too rife with intractable and intrinsic flaws to be trusted when life and death hangs in the balance. Nationally, since the reinstatement of the modern death penalty, 87 people have been freed from death row because they were later proven innocent - a demonstrated error rate of 1 innocent person for every 7 persons executed, an unconscionable ratio in a civilized society, in my opinion.

A shocking two out of three death penalty convictions have been overturned on appeal because of police and prosecutorial misconduct, as well as serious errors by incompetent court-appointed defense attorneys with little experience in trying capital cases.

In fact, all too often, life or death comes down to whether you can afford competent legal counsel. If you’re rich enough to afford a good attorney, you WILL NOT be sentenced to death.

Perhaps the greatest argument against the death penalty is that it is handed out in a biased, racially disparate manner. Comprehensive studies conclude that race plays a significant role in who gets the death penalty - not only race of the defendant but race of the victim as well. In fact, defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims. No matter how the data is analyzed, race of the victim always emerges as an important factor in who receives the death penalty.

Research also shows that black defendants are almost 4 times more likely to receive the death penalty than non-blacks. These results were obtained after analyzing and controlling for case differences such as the severity of the crime and the background of the defendant. The data were subjected to various forms of analysis, but the conclusion was clear: blacks are being sentenced to death far in excess of other defendants for similar crimes.

American Justice is hardly color blind. Blacks are frequently put to death for murdering whites, but whites are almost never executed for murdering blacks. If you’re black and poor, the odds are stacked against you. Such a system of injustice is not merely unfair and unconstitutional – it tears at the very principles to which this country struggles to adhere.

The arguments in favor of the death penalty are weak. There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than long terms of imprisonment, even though "deterrence" is often sited at the number one reason among its proponents. States that have death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without such laws. And states that have abolished capital punishment show no significant changes in either crime or murder rates. Claims that each execution deters a certain number of murders have been thoroughly discredited by social science research.

A recent study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology reported that 88% of the country’s top criminologists surveyed do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide. Eighty-seven percent of them think that the abolition of the death penalty would not have a significant effect on murder rates and 77% believe that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems.”

The only compelling argument for capital punishment, for me, comes down to retribution (just another word for revenge). The desire for revenge is one of the lowest human emotions. Although sometimes understandable, it's not a rational response to a critical situation. To kill the person who has killed someone close to you is simply to continue the cycle of violence which ultimately destroys the avenger as well as the offender.

Make no mistake: If someone committed a heinous act against someone I love, all my rhetoric against the death penalty would be out the window; I'd want to cast the first stone. That’s precisely why we have an unbiased, rational, objective, emotionally detached system of justice in place; otherwise vigilantism would work just fine.

Expressing one’s violence simply reinforces the desire to express it. Just as expressing anger simply makes us more angry. It contaminates the otherwise good will which any human being needs to progress in love, understanding, forgiveness and mercy – the higher, more noble human conditions to which a person and a society should aspire.

The bottom line is that the system is broken. Arguments in favor of the death penalty in spite of the system's flaws are inadequate. Therefore, the moratorium on executions should remain in force in North Carolina. Other states should end the practice, as well.