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We Become What We Hate: Gazing into the Abyss of the Death Penalty, Part 5

(We Become What We Hate. . . )

5. The Death Penalty and Racism Nationwide, 82% of those put to death were convicted of murdering a white person even though people of color are the victims of more than half of all homicides.

The evidence is overwhelming that the death penalty is applied in a racially-bigoted manner. In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported to the Congress the results of its review of empirical studies on racism and the death penalty. The GAO concluded: “Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty . . .” and that “race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process.”

The U.S. Congress has repeatedly failed to pass the Racial Justice Act, which would allow prisoners to challenge their death sentences using standards normal in civil racial discrimination cases.

6. The Death Penalty and Poverty About 90% of people facing capital charges cannot afford their own attorney.

No state has met standards developed by the American Bar Association for appointment, performance and compensation of counsel for indigent prisoners. A defendant’s poverty, lack of firm social roots in the community, inadequate legal representation at trial or on appeal—all these have been common factors among death row populations.

7. Prisoner Appeals Have Been Curtailed Since 1991, the Supreme Court has drastically restricted the rights of death row prisoners to appeal their convictions and death sentences in federal courts, even in cases where prisoners present compelling evidence of innocence.

In 1996, new legislation drastically limited federal court review of death penalty appeals and gutted public funding of legal aid services for death row prisoners.

8. American Bar Association Calls for Moratorium on the Death Penalty The American Bar Association has concluded that administration of the death penalty is “a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency” and has called for a moratorium on executions.

Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the #1 best-seller book, Dead Man Walking, asked C. Paul Phelps, the head of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, what he believes was accomplished by the execution of Pat Sonnier, a person to whom she was giving spiritual direction. Phelps said, “Zero. Absolutely nothing.” Nor does Mr. Phelps think that executions prevent crime. As he sees it, the criminal justice system produces the death penalty “when it is to the advantage of the prosecution.” He explains how D.A.s weigh a number of factors—the cost of the trial, the evidence, the expertise of the legal defense against them. Phelps continued, “. . . especially if they kill somebody important, then they push for the death penalty, but not if the person you kill is a nobody. By its nature, the criminal justice system will always be somewhat arbitrary.”

9. The Death Penalty is Expensive On average, state governments spend about $2.3 million per executed person—three times the cost of putting someone in maximum security for 40 years. Bedau summarizes the cost issue: “Capital punishment wastes resources. It squanders the time and energy of courts, prosecuting attorneys, defense counsel, juries, and courtroom and correctional personnel. It unduly burdens the system of criminal justice, and it is therefore counter- productive as an instrument for society’s control of violent crime. It epitomizes the tragic inefficacy and brutality of the resort to violence rather than reason for the solution of difficult problems.”

10. For All Its Expense, The Death Penalty Is Not Proven to Deter Crime The vast preponderance of the evidence shows that the death penalty is no more effective than imprisonment in deterring murder and that it may even be an incitement to criminal violence in certain cases. “At the very least,” according to Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, “the burden ought to be on death penalty supporters to prove that it does, in fact, deter crimes.”

Death penalty states, as a group, do not have lower rates of criminal homicide than non-death penalty states. During the 1980’s, death penalty states averaged an annual rate of 7.5 criminal homicides per 100,000 of population; abolition states averaged a rate of 7.4.

11. Virtually All Western Democracies Have Eliminated the Death Penalty Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called on the U.S. to end the death penalty: “The increasing use of the death penalty in the U.S. runs counter to the international community’s expressed desire for its abolition. As far back as 1971, the UN General Assembly called on states to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty with a view to its abolition. The council decided that there would be no application of the death penalty even for crimes against humanity and participation in genocide.”

Nicaragua, despite enduring one of the cruelest dictatorships in Latin American history, and losing over 50,000 lives during the revolution in 1979, ended the death penalty as a revolutionary act of forgiveness. Tomas Borge, who was mercilessly tortured in prison during the revolution, outlawed the death penalty after becoming Secretary of the Interior for the new Sandinista Government. Likewise, in South Africa, an important objective of the new post-Apartheid constitution was to end the death penalty.

If any group of people had a right to state-sanctioned executions, it was the Nicaraguans and South Africans. Yet, despite their pain, they saw their way out of the never-ending tunnel of revenge and executions. Why can’t we Americans learn from their experience?

Perry Johnson, retired director of the Michigan Department of Corrections and former president of the American Correctional Association, encourages the United States to end the death penalty. “We, as a civilized people, should not kill even the most heinous of criminals. It has a brutalizing effect on the public which imposes it. The ultimate message we give by enacting this penalty is that it is alright to kill out of anger or for vengeance. But that, as it happens, is what every unrepentant murderer I have ever known believes.”

Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing is wrong? It’s a strange question born of barbaric circumstances. When we kill, because they killed, we become what we hate—murderers. Revenge killing permanently lowers every single standard we value—as individuals, as a nation, as a culture.

Who will end the killing?

Dennis Godby is the Education Coordinator for the Oregon Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Dennis is also currently pursuing studies to become a naturopathic physician. He is a member of Saint Andrew’s Catholic community. He may be reached at (503) 774-6160 or by email.

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