Ever since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, our nation has been divided on the use of capital punishment within the judicial system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics between 1977 and 2010, of the 7,879 people under sentence of death, 16% had been executed (1,260 people). You can now say 1,303 people: 43 prisoners died from lethal injections this past year. In the blog, Contexts, author Sarah Shannon argues how “Lady Justice” within the United States is ‘random.’ Supporters of the death penalty, according to Shannon, believe that people who perform the most horrific crimes should receive harsher punishments. That idealistic notion, unfortunately, does not happen in our world.
Shannon does not provide much of a personal opinion, but she refers to several authors and their studies throughout her post. They conclude that the death penalty should be eliminated because harsher punishments are distributed on the basis of race and geography, rather than the offense of the crime. John Donohue, a Stanford law professor, analyzed all murder cases in Connecticut over a 34 year period. Lincoln Caplan’s New York Times editorial provides greater detail about Donahue’s study.
Out of the 4,686 murders committed in Connecticut, only 205 were considered ‘death-eligible’ cases. Out of these 205 cases, only 29 defendants had to attend a death-sentencing hearing. Donohue compared all 205 cases through a rating system with four factors: victim suffering, victim characteristics, defendant’s culpability, and the number of victims. Among those 29 defendants, “there was no clear difference in the level of egregiousness for the 17 who got life without parole and the 12 sentenced to death” (Caplan). Essentially inmates on death row are indistinguishable from equally violent offenders who escape that penalty, illustrating that the death penalty process is both arbitrary and discriminatory.
Another controversial theme about the death penalty is what types of people are sentenced to death. At the end of 2010, 36 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons held 3,158 inmates under sentence of death. Of those sentenced to death, 55% were white and 42% were black (Bureau of Justice Statistics).
Shannon cites information from another Context blogger, Suzy Maves McElrath. McElrath references Scott Philip’s study in Harris County, Texas, from 1992 to 1999, which claimed that the victim’s status (i.e. highly educated vs. uneducated) influenced the defendant’s sentence. As a result, Philips concluded that death was more likely to be imposed against black defendants than white defendants, and death was more likely to be imposed on behalf of white victims than black victims. Sure, within certain regions of the country, it seems like blacks are targeted more than whites, but nationally, more white prisoners have been executed (57%) than black prisoners (34%) since the death penalty was reinstated (Bureau of Justice Statistics).
Philip’s study got me thinking about the execution of death row prisoner Troy Davis on September 21st 2011. To provide a little background information, Davis had been on death row for 22 years, after being convicted of murdering off-duty Savannah, Georgia, policeman Mark MacPhail in 1989. Davis’s public support, which included celebrities, social media, and even the Pope, increased dramatically when seven witnesses from his trial said that “they lied and were pressured from the prosecution”; another suspect was also on the verge of confessing. While many people would believe that these events could cast reasonable doubt, the Supreme Court denied Davis’s stay of execution. There was outrage and cries of racism across the country. Would Davis have been spared if he was white? I’m not entirely sure. My question is: would have Davis gotten this much publicity if he was white?
To conclude, I would like to point out that unlike the United States, concerns about the death penalty are virtually non-existent across the pond. When I was studying abroad in Spain last semester, my host family and I were watching footage of the Troy Davis execution. As I mentioned on Shannon’s post, my family was shocked that prisoners in the United States could be executed. My sister informed me that the European Union (EU), does not support the death penalty and that Spain does not have ‘life in prison’ sentences: the maximum sentence for murder is 30 years. As she explained it, rather than shunning prisoners from the outside world for the rest of their lives, the hope of the justice system is to help prisoners be able to re-enter society. From a deontological perspective, the Spanish justice system believes that it’s their moral duty to help all members of their society, including those who have already caused pain and suffering to others. Personally, the thought of a previously convicted murderer walking along the street just sounds morally wrong, especially since their victim(s) is still dead. Then again, doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?