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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2011 > November 2011 > Reconsidering Capital Punishment

Reconsidering Capital Punishment

Sunday 30 October 2011, by Tamkinat Mirza

“I am innocent. The incident that happened that night is not my fault. I did not have a gun. All I can ask ... is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth... I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight.” Troy Anthony Davis’s death sentence was carried out on Sept 21, and these were some of his last words.

Davis was convicted of the murder of an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail, in 1989—based on witness testaments. Since then, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted or substantially altered their testimonies, while some have admitted to being pressured into falsely testifying against Davis.

According to reports, one of the two witnesses who stuck to his testimony, Sylvester “Red” Coles, has been discovered to be the gunman involved in the MacPhail murder, based on recent evidence. Nine people have since signed affidavits implicating Coles.

There was never any physical evidence linking Davis to the event, and the murder weapon was not found.

After Davis’ conviction, one juror told CNN news in an interview “If I knew then, what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on death row.” Despite this lack of evidence, and the reliance of the case on witness testimonies that have proven either false or highly suspect, the US Supreme court refused to hear his final appeal earlier in the year

Following Davis’ execution, Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International, released a statement calling for the abolishment of the death penalty in the United States:

"The U.S. justice system was shaken to its core as Georgia executed a person who may well be innocent. Killing a man under this enormous cloud of doubt is horrific and amounts to a catastrophic failure of the justice system... Justice may be blind; but in this case, the justice system was blind to the facts. The state of Georgia has proven that the death penalty is too great a power to give to the government. Human institutions are prone to bias and error and cannot be entrusted with this God-like power. The death penalty is a human rights violation whether given to the guilty or the innocent, and it must be abolished.”

Numerous authorities have opposed Davis’ execution, including the Pope; former FBI director William Sessions; former Republican congressman from Georgia, Bob Barr; and the former warden of Georgia’s death row prison. Personalities such as filmmaker Michael Moore and comedian Dick Gregory have also publicly opposed the death penalty: Moore attempted to recall copies of his books from stores in Georgia in order to not “have any participation” with the state till it abolished capital punishment, while Gregory went on a hunger-strike to showcase his discontent.

In his eulogy, Edward Dubose, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), recounted Davis’ plea for the people to “fight for every prisoner that is on death row in this country.” The matter extends beyond Davis’ experience and exists on a much larger scale.
Davis stands as a symbol of the flaws of the United States’ judicial system and its use of the death penalty, when it is nearly impossible to determine an individual’s guilt without any room for error.

Numerous factors exist as biases leading to wrongful conviction. Among these are inadequate legal representation, misconduct of police and prosecution, perjured testimony and mistaken eyewitness testimony, racial prejudice, suppression or misinterpretation of mitigating evidence, and community or political pressure to solve a case.

Statistics show that local politics, the location of the crime and plea bargaining also affect the system: 82% of all executions since 1976 have taken place in the South, while the Northeast accounts for less than 1% of the executions.
According to Amnesty International, over 130 people have been released from death row in the United States since 1973, upon evidence of wrongful conviction.

Since 1977, the majority of death row defendants have been executed for killing white victims, although African-Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.

Such numbers highlight the existence of both errors in conviction and the presence of racism in courts.

To date, 139 countries have abolished the death penalty, recognizing it to be ineffective, costly and a human rights violation. However, the United States has yet to reach this realization, as 34 of the 50 states still have the death penalty. The country resumed executions in 1977 after nearly a decade, following a Supreme Court ruling. Over 1200 men and women have been on death row across the country since then. However, the annual number of executions has dropped by half from its peak of 98 in the late 90s.

Former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens stated in 2008, after over three decades in the court, that he finds capital punishment immoral.
“I have relied on my own experience,” Stevens wrote, “in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes. [A punishment with] such negligible returns to the State is patently excessive and cruel.”

Stevens has since also expressed regret over his vote for the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia, in 1977: “I think that we did not foresee how it would be interpreted. I think that was an incorrect decision,” he said.

Justice Harry Bluckman, who voted similarly in Gregg v. Georgia has also expressed his opinion that the United States’ attempt at capital punishment had failed, as the justice system is incapable of always accurately determining which defendants deserve to die.

The death penalty has been defended in the past as providing a deterrent from homicide, yet, statistics do not confirm this. The murder rate in non-death penalty states in the US has remained consistently lower than the rates in states with the Death Penalty. Note also, that capital punishment will not be considered by those acting on the emotional impulses of rage or revenge, or those blinded by the influence of drugs or alcohol.

While the human costs associated with capital punishment have been enumerated above, the economic costs associated with it must also be taken into account. Recent cost studies have shown death penalty cases to be significantly more expensive than non-death penalty cases.

A 2003 legislative audit in Kansas found that the estimated cost associated with a death penalty case was 70% more than the cost of a comparable non-death penalty case. In Tennessee, death penalty trials cost an average of 48% more than the average cost of trials seeking life imprisonment. In Maryland, death penalty cases cost 3 times more than non-death penalty cases, about $3 million for one case. Similarly, the same system in California costs $137 annually, compared to an estimated $11.5 million without the death penalty.

These costs are incurred before and during the trial, not in post-conviction proceedings. Trials with the death penalty follow two phases: conviction and sentencing, and require extra time for special motions and jury selection, and face higher investigative expenses.

These heightened expenses divert resources from existing arms of the judicial system: crime control measures, mental health treatment, education, rehabilitation, services for victims and drug treatment programs.

In light of these realizations, alternatives to the death penalty are being sought by the people and an increasing number of governments worldwide. On September 22, over 1000 people gathered in New York City for a “Day of Outrage” to commemorate Troy Davis’ execution, and to express their frustration with the current judicial system.

Along their march through Manhattan, the crowd gathered with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was in its infancy. Perhaps this combination of two groups organized separately, each with their own conception of human rights violations that must be fixed, signifies something greater.

“I think we will be able to abolish the death penalty," Martina Correia, Troy Davis’ older sister said in an interview, "I know we will be able to abolish the death penalty, because people all over the world are asking the question, why kill when there’s doubt? And I want people to know that we’re no longer going to accept that, not in our names.”

The death penalty is cruel, it is prone to unjustified killing, and it is draining resources that would be better diverted to other, more humane aspects of the justice system. Realization of these facts is on the rise and the people want change.