President Donald Trump’s unprecedented rush to execute prisoners in the final days of his administration illustrates much of what’s wrong with the death penalty. It is politicized, arbitrary and unfair.
Most Americans, according to polls, assume the death penalty is reserved for those with no doubt of guilt. But time and time again we learn that people should never have been sentenced to death. Either there were serious mitigating circumstances that should have been taken into account, or it was later found that the accused had nothing to do with the underlying crime.
Trump and Attorney General William Barr have overseen eight executions since July, ending a 17-year hiatus in the federal death penalty. They scheduled five more executions before Trump left the White House on January 20, which would make 2020 the year of the most federal executions checked in.
The political urgency behind this murder rush is obvious. No federal prisoner has been executed in a presidential transition in 100 years, but Trump and Barr want to carry out every possible execution before President-elect Joe Biden, who has campaigned against the death penalty, enters. active.
In 1989, Trump, then just an attention-seeking real estate developer, offered a fairly good example of the politicization of the death penalty when he pulled out an entire page ads in four New York newspapers calling for a resumption of the death penalty in New York State. Trump was outraged by an assault on a white jogger in New York’s Central Park, a crime for which five African-American teenagers had been arrested but not yet charged. Years later, based on new testimony and DNA evidence, the five men’s convictions were overturned, but Trump – widely accused of inflaming public opinion in the case – has never apologized.
Now Trump is starting over. He is doing everything possible to ensure that as many federal death row inmates are executed before he leaves office, even as he forgives his political allies who have been convicted of crimes. This is the kind of political demagoguery that has historically undermined any argument for the death penalty.
It is difficult to say that every detainee to be executed is subject to last minute scrutiny, which is crucial. Take the case of Derrick Jamison, a Cincinnati man who served 20 years in prison for a murder in 1984 before new evidence exonerated him. At one point, Jamison was within 90 minutes of being executed.
An arbitrary system
It is also difficult to say that each of the people currently on death row would still have been sentenced to death had their case been tried by different judges, different juries or different prosecutors in different jurisdictions. Study after study has shown that a defendant’s race, geography, quality of defense attorneys, and mental health are decisive factors in determining who is on death row in this country – this is largely a question. bad luck. Since 1986, the majority of state-level executions have taken place in just 2% of US counties.
Yes, the crimes for which people have been sentenced to death are unspeakably horrifying, including cases where the Trump administration has executed or plans to execute detainees. But the crimes for which people were convicted and then exonerated were often just as unspeakable. And the crimes for which some inmates take a break while others don’t – because of the color of their skin or the poverty of their defense – are equally unspeakable.
After years of attempted reforms and promises, the United States should come to terms with the fact that we are unable to design a system of capital punishment that only executes the culprits. Any safeguards we put in place are liable to crumble when the anger and passion over a heinous crime cloud our collective judgment. False confessions, false eyewitnesses, false testimony, undisclosed evidence, false “expert” testimony and mere coincidences also lead to false verdicts.
When a close re-examination of a case, or new evidence such as DNA testing, frees an innocent person who has been sentenced to death, death penalty advocates like to say, “See, the system works. This is hogwash. Should we expect volunteer teams of defense lawyers or new breakthroughs in evidence to come at the right time to save every wrongly convicted person?
Since 1973, 172 wrongfully convicted death row inmates have been cleared, including 21 in Illinois, which abolished the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. It is a horrible number. Those sentenced to the alternative – life imprisonment – can be released if they are later found innocent. But the executions are final.
States have been moving away from the death penalty for years. Capital punishment is illegal in 22 states and there is a governor’s moratorium in three others. There is no solid evidence to prove that the death penalty deters crime.
The Congress or the Supreme Court of the United States should also prohibit the death penalty at the federal level.
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