Troy Davis despite serious doubts about his guilt ought to start a national dialogue about the death penalty–one that, I would hope, leads us to abandon it. The bottom line with the death penalty is the possibility–or inevitability–of executing the innocent. In this regard, one also thinks of the widespread doubts about the conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas–the state whose governor, Rick Perry, was applauded at a GOP presidential debate due to his death penalty record. One also thinks about the Death Penalty Information Center’s count of 138 people freed after being wrongfully convicted. In addition, there are gross and consistent disparities in the application of capital punishment–and given that the punishment is final, such unequal application of the law cannot be justified. An editorial in today’s New York Times considers all these factors and comes to an inescapable conclusion. From “An Indefensible Punishment":
...[Juror] biases are driven by race, class and politics, which influence all aspects of American life. As a result, they have made discrimination and arbitrariness the hallmarks of the death penalty in this country.
For example, two-thirds of all those sentenced to death since 1976 have been in five Southern states where “vigilante values” persist, according to the legal scholar Franklin Zimring. Racism continues to infect the system, as study after study has found in the past three decades.
The problems go on: Many defendants in capital cases are too poor to afford legal counsel. Many of the lawyers assigned to represent them are poorly equipped for the job. A major study done for the Senate Judiciary Committee found that “egregiously incompetent defense lawyering” accounted for about two-fifths of the errors in capital cases. Apart from the issue of counsel, these cases are more expensive at every stage of the criminal process than noncapital cases.
Politics also permeates the death penalty, adding to chances of arbitrary administration. Most prosecutors in jurisdictions with the penalty are elected and control the decision to seek the punishment. Within the same state, differing politics from county to county have led to huge disparities in use of the penalty, when the crime rates and demographics were similar. This has been true in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas and many other states.
So far, under this horrifying system, 17 innocent people sentenced to death have been exonerated and released based on DNA evidence, and 112 other people based on other evidence. All but a few developed nations have abolished the death penalty. It is time Americans acknowledged that the death penalty cannot be made to comply with the Constitution and is in every way indefensible.