Shifting the Conversation About the Death Penalty

I agree: The anti-death-penalty movement has been too hung up on the issue of innocence.

Of the 50 or so death row inmates I have represented, I have serious doubts about the guilt of three or four — that is, 6 to 8 percent, about what scholars estimate to be the percentage of innocent people on death row.

In 98 percent of the cases, however, in 49 out of 50, there were appalling violations of legal principles: prosecutors struck jurors based on their race; the police hid or manufactured evidence; prosecutors reached secret deals with jailhouse snitches; lab analysts misrepresented forensic results. Most of the cases do not involve bogus claims of innocence, like the one that swirled for 15 years around Roger Coleman, but the government corruption that the federal courts overlook so that the states can go about their business of executing.

The House case will make it hard for abolitionists to shift their focus from the question of innocence, but that is what they ought to do. They ought to focus on the far more pervasive problem: that the machinery of death in America is lawless, and in carrying out death sentences, we violate our legal principles nearly all of the time.

We need to evaluate the death penalty on its face: Even if we accept that most people on death row are indeed guilty, is the state ever justified in killing people who commit crimes against it? I don’t think so. And I think it speaks to the backwardness of the death penalty when we’re the only developed nation that still employs it, and yet we manage to use it more than nearly every other country. It’s employed racistly and unevenly, and is being utilized as an ultimate punishment in an already-flawed criminal justice system. We have to ask if we want to be the kind of society that allows the state to kill its own members for crimes they commit. I know what my answer is.


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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4 Responses to Shifting the Conversation About the Death Penalty

  1. Nomie says:

    I think a lot of the people still clinging to the idea of the death penalty are those who identify closely with conservative Christian ideals. If you believe in heaven and hell, then surely a convicted prisoner on death row must be going to hell. And that’s a greater punishment than any human could ever dish out. If on the other hand you don’t believe in hell, or an afterlife, or if you don’t believe in the infallibility of the justice system, or if you aren’t sure that all death row inmates are necessarily going to hell… it’s stickier. After all, the only person Christ guaranteed a place in heaven was the convicted thief crucified next to him.

    (Disclaimer: all speculation and conjecture, includes sweeping generalizations, and I’m incredibly jetlagged and sleepy. Just wanted to get this down before I forgot my point.)

  2. Anne says:

    I’d have to say I agree with you, Jill, and I was glad you mentioned the state-sanctioned killing.

    At the same time, however, I’m not 100% against a death penalty under certain circumstances. I believe some crimes go against society in ways that show certain individuals cannot (or should not?) function in a social setting. I think there are individuals who cannot be rehabilitated and I also think prison can do more harm than any good. To make it that much more difficult for me, I feel that a lot of crimes have roots in society’s own fucked-upedness.

    I think our judicial system is fucked in its own right and we need to do a major revamping of the entire system itself.

    You’ve dealt more with law than I have, Jill, so I’m wondering what your thoughts are on alternatives (to the death penalty and the current system).

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    The death penalty guarantees the perp will never kill again.

    One of the 1993 WTC terrorists–having a life without parole sentence, stabbed a guard in the eye with a homemade knife. The guard suffered permanent brain damage. Just one example to make the point that swapping the death penalty for long terms is not without cost. It’s just that we don’t know who will pay the cost, nor when. It’s easy to push the cost off onto people we don’t know. Not so easy to make the guilty–who’s had considerably more ink than the victim, and probably more sympathetic coverage than the vic who is a dratted inconvenience–who is a known individual pay the price. But, of the two, who should? Somebody will.
    Who?

  4. Michele says:

    I have my own issues with the death penalty, and though I don’t believe in theory that it is wrong/immoral/etc., I don’t believe that it can ever be justly administered. However, as a former prosecutor I take serious issue with this claim.

    “In 98 percent of the cases, however, in 49 out of 50, there were appalling violations of legal principles: prosecutors struck jurors based on their race; the police hid or manufactured evidence; prosecutors reached secret deals with jailhouse snitches; lab analysts misrepresented forensic results.”

    Even in the worst, most corrupt district this claim by the author is pure folly. There is absolutely no chance that this is true. This author has clearly fallen to his own messed up issues with the whole system being a conspiracy against him and his former clients. These kinds of percentages would suggest a system wide evil that wouldn’t even be possible if it was intended, given the total lack of coherent policy in any gov’t office.

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