The death sentence has been around since the dawn of the justice system. Throughout the entire history, people have been burned, stoned, or electrocuted to death. Some of the countries still punish the alleged offenders in this way. The devastating fact is that, in the United States, 4.1% of the death penalty convicts are actually innocent. In this day and age, can the death penalty be justified?
In his column for The New York Times, Mr. Nicholas Kristof dealt with this complex subject in great details, facing the readers with cases where sentence to death was taken lightly by the judges and jury. As Mr. Kristof mentioned, most of the convicts had actually committed vile crimes they had been executed for. But there are some facts that we should consider before taking a stand.
Reasons ‘in Favor’ of Death Sentence
The states that still have the death sentence argue in favor of this penalty for a few significant reasons. First, some see it as a way to discourage brutal crimes. A study published in 2003 shows that every execution stops, on average, five murders. However, another study from 2012 opposes this, finding that deterrent effect depends on the statistical model. It suggests that possible result of execution could be saving 21 lives, but causing another 63 murders.
The other argument that “justifies” this harsh penalty is saving money. This, in fact, is not accurate. Preparations before trial, selecting the jury and appeals are far more expensive when the capital cases are in question. Study that several criminologists performed in 2017 found that for each death sentence taxpayers paid on average $700,000 more than they would if a verdict was life imprisonment. The other reason sentence to death is costly is because appeals are automatic, which gives more time for the defense to prepare the case.
Aside from these two, the third common reason to support the death penalty is that it is seen as a fitting retaliation for a monstrous crime. This stand argues that we dishonor victims if a monster is just locked away. It is the value-based reasoning that cannot be overruled with statistics and data. However, Mr. Kristof finds the counterargument in history. Executions as a way to express moral values of the community are the ones that lead to the stoning of the adulterers, burning witches, and heretics. Our columnist even mentions boiling Christians in Japan.
Death Penalty and Racial Bias
One of the greatest problems the justice system in the U.S. faces is racial bias. Researchers have found that in comparison to white defendants, black defendants fare worse. Also, black prisoners with dark complexions fare much worse than the ones with light complexions.
The statistics show that 42% of the convicts on death row are black, while the other 42% are white, and most of the remaining ones are Hispanic. Research from Washington State found that jury was four times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant.
Facts That Make Things Worse
Mentioned research also found that in Thurston County in Washington, prosecutors asked for the death sentence in 67% cases of the aggravated murder. One hundred thirty miles further, in Okanogan County, this percentage is zero.
Another study shows that, in Texas, prosecutors partly rely on how The Houston Chronicle reports about the case when asking for the death sentence. Also, if the majority of jury members are women, punishment by execution is less likely.
The other thing that should be noted is that jury in most cases sends on a death row prisoners that don’t show remorse. That puts in danger those defendants who are innocent because innocent people don’t show remorse. And, when it comes to evidence, in most cases there is not enough DNA for testing.
In the first paragraph of this article, we mentioned that 4.1% of the prisoners waiting for the execution were innocent. Since there are more than 2,700 Americans waiting for the death sentence, it means that 110 of them are unjustly convicted.
The Case of Clifford Williams Jr.
All of the statistics and research data bring us to one of the greatest injustices people could suffer. What when you get convicted so harshly for the crime you didn’t commit?
Mr. Kristof mentioned several cases of injustice regarding the death penalty, but the one that he talks about at the beginning of his column leaves as almost speechless. On October 27, 1976, Judge Clifford B. Shepard sentenced to death Clifford Williams Jr., who was found guilty of murdering a woman whose house he entered with a spare key.
Though forensics had shown that the shoots which killed the woman had been fired from the outside, breaking the glass on the window and piercing the curtains, the jury decided to convict Williams. Another fact that was going in favor of the defendant was his alibi. Many witnesses confirmed that Williams was attending a birthday party that evening.
This verdict came only three months after the Supreme Court, in the case Gregg vs. Georgia, restored death punishment which was supposed to be applied only to the worst of the worst. However, in 1980, Williams’ verdict was overturned, and he was convicted on a life of imprisonment instead.
He Was Waiting for Freedom for 42 Years
Williams had to spend in prison 42 years until someone looked at his case again and realized that there was no valid evidence to prove his guilt. In 2016, Williams finally got his long-awaited freedom. Today, he lives in Jacksonville with his daughter, picking up the pieces of his life unjustly wasted in prison.
And What About Rehabilitation?
Scotty Morrow was a black man who grew up surrounded by violence. Through his childhood, he faced constant abuse, which lead him to commit murder. In 1994, this man was sentenced to death for killing two women and shooting another one in the face.
Morrow spent his time in prison praying for the families of the women he murdered. Some of the correctional officers appealed through the years for his life to be speared. The psychologist that worked with Morrow, William L. Buchanan, recollects that one of the correctional officers said this inmate was the best man in the world. In twenty years of imprisonment, only disciplinary report against him was for intervening during a prison fight and trying to protect one prisoner from being stabbed.
This example can be looked at as a testament to one’s honest remorse and rehabilitation. And, though many confirmed Morrow’s growth and repentance, the State of Georgia executed him last month. Before twenty witnesses, he stated once again his sorrow, hoping that families of victims would heal one day.
What Are We Thinking?
Mr. Kristof ends his column with the words of Clifford Williams Jr., saying that too many people who don’t deserve it get the death sentence. Even Henry M. Coxe III, the prosecutor on Williams’ case, agreed that the death sentence didn’t serve a meaningful purpose.
Yet, 56% of Americans favor this punishment, believing it would save money and be applied only in cases of the vilest crimes. However, having all information, it is an inevitable conclusion that the death sentence is expensive, random, and unjustified.
To rephrase Mr.Kristof’s words, one day, people will look at this subject the way we look at witch trials, and someone will ask what we were thinking. So what are we thinking?