The Case Against Capital Punis Essay
John H. Whitehead Professor Roth Whitehead 1 A Moratorium on The Death Penalty Should Be Enacted In Illinois Due to the recent releases of newly exonerated Death Row inmates, individuals and organizations are calling for a moratorium- a cooling off period for state executions. The cases of just a few inmates makes it apparent that this would be a necessary step to save innocent lives. After 17 years in prison, Illinois Death Row inmate Anthony Porter was released from jail after a judge threw out his murder conviction following the introduction of new evidence. This reversal of fortune came just two days before Porter was to be executed. As reported in USA Today, Porter’s release was the result of investigative research as conducted by a Northwestern University professor and students. The evidence gathered suggested that Porter had been wrongly convicted. Were these new revelations and the subsequent release of Porter a lucky break or a freak occurrence? Not likely, reports DeWayne Wickham, also of USA Today. He points out that since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States in 1976, of those sentenced to death, 490 people have been executed while 76 have been freed from
This calculates into one innocent person being released from Death Row for every six individuals that were executed. This figure correlates with the 1996 U.S. Department of Justice report that indicates that over a 7-year period, beginning in 1989, when DNA evidence in various cases was tested, 26% of primary suspects were exonerated. This has led some to conclude that a similar percentage of inmates presently serving time behind bars may have been wrongly convicted prior to the advent of forensic DNA typing. Whitehead 2 Amnesty International, in its 1998 report “Fatal Flaws: Innocence and the Death Penalty”, supports the American Bar Association’s call for a death penalty moratorium. Michelle Stevens, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, reported that in 1998 Illinois State Representative Coy Pugh (D-Chicago) introduced a resolution calling for a bi-partisan panel to study the death penalty in Illinois. During the study all executions would be postponed.
This proposal was initially killed but revived following the recent releases. Yet, this call for a moratorium on the death penalty is not the first time that state executions have been opposed. Throughout its history capital punishment has been opposed on many premises. In discussion forums across the world many individuals often cite deterrence of crime as a viable defense of capital punishment. However, comprehensive studies, including the 1994 FBI Uniform crime Report, indicate that capital punishment does not serve as a deterrent to crime. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the death penalty not only does not deter crime- among states that have either abolished or instituted the death penalty crime and murder rates have remained unchanged.
Additionally, Eric Pooley of Time magazine, in his research, reports that no proof exists to substantiate claims that capital punishment discourages crime by anyone other than the criminals whom are executed. Glenn Lammi, of the Washington Legal Foundation is quoted as saying that “there are no convincing studies” [connecting] the death penalty and the crime rate. Whitehead 3 In the absence of persuasive studies linking capital punishment and crime rates, who better to turn to than the individuals who walk the thin blue line- law enforcement officials may be better equipped to address this subject. Time magazine reports that 67% of polled police chiefs also did not believe that the death penalty deters [crime such as] homicide. According to a 1994 Government Accounting Office report (GAO) substantial evidence indicates that courts have been unfair in death sentencing. The 1990 GAO report, summarizing numerous capital punishment studies, confirmed “a consistent pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.”
The GAO also revealed that those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to Death Row than those who murdered blacks. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) nearly 40% of those executed since 1976 have been black although blacks only comprise 12% of the U.S. population. And in just about every death penalty case, the race of the victim was white. The DPIC goes on to report that in the previous year, 89% of the death sentences involved victims whom were white. U.S News and World Report writer Ted Gest reinforces his concept. He writes that on Death Row race really does matter. He points out that on Death Row whites and minorities are represented roughly equally. The disparity in allocation of the death penalty preempted the American Bar Association, in it’s 1997 article “The Task Ahead; Reconciling Justice with Politics, to call for jurisdictions that exercise capital punishment to refrain from its use until fairness Whitehead 4 and due process could be assured. The ABA further called for the examination of procedures and practices for each state.
State and federal justices have also spoken out against capital punishment according to Jack Callahan of the Rochester Institute of Technology. To point out an instance, Callahan cites U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun as declaring that he henceforth opposes the death penalty on the bases of the failure of the death penalty experiment. Blackmun, is further cited to state that the [potential] execution of an innocent individual comes “perilously to simple murder.” Justice Clarence Thomas is cited as having stated that “the possibility of perjured testimonymistaken testimony and human error remain all to real. We have no way of judging how many innocent people have been executed but we can be certain that there were some.” The United Nations, during an April 3rd 1997 press briefing, announced that its Commission on Human Rights had voted overwhelmingly to abolish the death penalty.
The resolution called on member states that still maintained the death penalty to restrict the number of offenses for which the death penalty could be imposed and to consider abolishing executions completely. This opposition to the death penalty intertwined with new revelations all highlights the fact that innocent people are being wrongly sent to Death Row. “I had”, said he, “come to an entirely erroneous conclusion which allow, my dear Watson, how dangerous is always is to reason from insufficient data.’ Said Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventures of the Speckled Band.” Whitehead 5 Since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States, 490 people have been executed while 76 have been freed from Death Row, DeWayne Wickham of USA Today points out. The Death Penalty Information Center’s 1997 report on Innocence and the Death Penalty attributes these releases to scientific advancements such as DNA testing and journalistic investigations.
Numerous factors such as overzealous prosecutors, deliberate actions of police, inadequate counsel, convictions based solely upon questionable eyewitness reports, laboratory error and unreliable evidence have all resulted in innocent individuals being sent to Death Row. This strengthens the call for a death penalty moratorium in Illinois. Inadequate counsel is a major contributing factor that has landed the innocent on Death Row, according to Ted Gest of the US News and World Report. According to Gest courts in southern states, the location of most American executions, are only able to find poorly paid lawyers for many defendants. Attorneys diligent enough to input 500-1000 hours in a death penalty case must often work [well] below minimum wage. According to Amnesty International, the average salary of court appointed lawyers was $11.70 per hour. The 1996 National Institute of Justice also cites inadequate counsel, specifically in failing to consult competent scientific experts, as a contributing factor to the dilemma of individuals being false sentenced to Death Row.
Whitehead 6 According to the National Institute of Justice, prior to the advent of DNA typing courts were forced to rely on less reliable types of evidence such as blood typing and eyewitness accounts. Blood typing, it is reported by the National Institute of Justice, has oftentimes yielded completely erroneous results. This logically indicates the possibility that individuals may have been erroneously convicted based upon this evidence. According to the National Institute of Justice 1996 report, courts relying solely upon eyewitness accounts wrongly convicted individuals in 28 documented cases. DNA evidence later cleared these individuals. In this report, Supreme Court Justice Brennen in the United States vs. Wade, 12 was quoted as saying that “The vagaries of eyewitness identification are well known; the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identification.” Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a noted critic of the reliability of eyewitness testimony noted that witnesses are susceptible to intentional or unintentional suggestions from police.
She explains that there is pressure on the part of witnesses to see the crime solved. This susceptibility may contribute to false eyewitness identifications. In assessing physical evidence, the National Institute of Justice indicated that the common practice of blood typing, as the primary source of indicating guilt, is faulty in its unreliability. The deterioration of the genetic material in blood typing procedures could yield completely erroneous results. This logically implicates the possibility that individuals may have been erroneously convicted based upon this form of evidence. In cases where new DNA forensic was tested, 26% of primary suspects in similar cases Whitehead 7 were exonerated. This has led some to conclude that a similar percentage of inmates many have been wrongly convicted prior to the advent of forensic DNA typing. DNA testing, though a conduit for exoneration in these cases has also been challenged and the courts in at least one case have been refused to admit analyzed laboratory results because the lab failed to reveal its testing methods.
Such an omission can prevent replication of the results and may result in an innocent person being wrongly convicted. The deliberate misconduct of the prosecutor’s scientific experts has been an issue in a number of cases in which formerly convicted individuals were later exonerated. The NIJ reported that the West Virginian Supreme Court indicted Fred Zain, a forensic scientist for perjury. This following his failure to disclose information relating to the high unliklihood that fluid samples could have come from the defendant. The subsequent investigation resulted in the courts declaring Zain’s testimony, in more than 130 cases inadmissible. Technical issues aside, the violence and barbarity of executions is considered by some as a justification to end capital punishment. Some American states continue to utilize such methods as death by electrocution, hanging, gas chambers and firing squads. Many question the humanity of these procedures.
Let’s take a look at exactly what most execution methods entail. Hanging, a method of execution that dates back to the American colonial times, is described in the official hanging protocol as developed for the state of Delaware (Execution by Hanging, 1990).The official procedure for handing involves the inmate being dropped a distance Whitehead 8 and being stopped by a rope fasten around the neck, the force of this drop-and-stop method breaks the bones of the neck, thus severing the spinal cord. This causes the inmate to become unconscious, and at this point, strangle to death due to lack of oxygen. The individual should be brain dead within six minutes and heart dead in about eight. The report indicates that the individual may experience pain-briefly. However, an error in the hanging procedure could possibly result in instances where the spinal cord is not severed and the inmate is conscious during strangulation.
A drop of too far a distance will result in the decapitation of the subject. In gas chamber executions, a cyanide pellet is placed in a container below the inmate’s seat. A switch is thrown and the cyanide reacting with a sulfuric acid solution releases lethal gas. The inmate is denied air and thus suffocates. The time that elapses from the time that the prisoner is restrained to death is about 38 minutes, though it is believed that death occurs 6-18 minutes after the gas is released. According to the 1997 sate of Florida Corrections Commissions Annual Report Michael Radelet, chairman of the University of Florida sociology department has documented 22 cases where executions have been botched. For example, officials in Mississippi were forced to clear the room eight minutes into the execution of Jimmy Lee Gray after his desperate gasps for air repulsed witnesses. David Bruck, a writer for the New Republic, reported that Lee died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber-while reporters counted his moans. Whitehead 9 Also documented is the case of John Evans.
According to Radelet, after the first jolt of electricity, sparks and flames shot from the electrodes that were attached to Evan’s leg. The electrode then caught fire. Smoke and sparks shot from underneath the hood that was attached to his head. Soon, Evan’s flesh began to smoke and burn. Doctors rushed in, discovered a heartbeat and applied additional jolts. This continued for an additional 14 minutes despite the pleas of Evan’s attorney. Lethal injection heralded by some as a more humane method of execution also has its share of problems. It was reported by Michael Radelet that in a 1989 Texas execution, inmate Stephen McCoy had such a violent reaction to the drugs (i.e. heaving, coughing, gasping) that a male witness fainted- crashing into and knocking over another witness. In Texas, December 1988, Raymond Landry was pronounced dead 40 minutes after being strapped to the table. Two minutes into his execution the syringe came out of his vein spraying deadly chemicals across the room towards the witnesses of the execution.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in 1983 made the observation that “Lethal injection poses a serious risk of cruel, protracted deatheven a slight error of dosage or administration can leave a prisoner conscious but paralyzed while dyinga sentient witness to his or her own asphyxiation.” Many individuals in defense of the death penalty give the argument that a life sentence as compared to execution is a waste of taxpayer money. However, numerous studies have shown that the cost of execution far exceeds the cost of life imprisonment. Whitehead 10 In The Geography of ExecutionThe Capital Punishment Quagmire in America it is reported that Florida estimates the total cost of an average life in prison of 40 years to cost $680,000, far less than the #3.18 million average cost of a single execution. These figure correlate with those of Texas, the nation’s leader in executions, according to Department of Justice figures. In Punishment and the Death Penalty the Texas criminal justice system estimated the cost of appeal capital murder at 2.3 million dollars.
The cost of life in prison totals only $750,000. Clearly, state executions are not cost effective. When given concrete figures the public’s support of capital punishment diminishes. A 1994 Gallup poll asked that if given a choice, which would be a better choice-, the death penalty or life in prison without parole? Support for the death penalty (80%) dripped to 50% according to the 1995 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report. In conclusion, all of the above arguments support a death penalty moratorium in Illinois. The most common argument in favor of the death penalty is that it deters crime. This simply is not true. Law enforcement officials, the very individuals that deal with crime on a daily basis, doubt the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Considerable evidence indicates that racial disparities exist in the allocation of death sentences with blacks receiving a disproportionate amount of death sentences as compared to their white counterparts.
Organizations such as the American Bar Association and individuals such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have spoken out in opposition to the death penalty. The UN has adopted a worldwide resolution calling for an eventual end to state executions. From Anthony Porter to dozens more released from Death Row since it’s Whitehead 11 reinstatement, there exists significant possibilities that there are individuals innocent of their accused crimes sitting on Death Row. Journalistic investigations have proven this possibility and DNA evidence has furthered cleared those previously convicted. An overwhelming number of factors including, overzealous prosecutors, inadequate defense counsel, the unreliability of evidence, the cost ineffectiveness of executions, the sheer brutality of executions and the decline of public support for state execution when presented with other options, all warrant at least a temporary halt to executions to allow time for these issue to be addressed.
As members of a collective American society, we are all affected by a judicial system that though designed to protect the weak and innocent, sends these very same individuals to their deaths. It must become our quest to see that true justice is at least addressed. Yesterday, Anthony Porter was almost sent to his death. Today, it may be someone you barely know. However, tomorrow it may be you or I. This call for a moratorium in Illinois is a call for justice. Thomas Jefferson once wrote “Truth is [the] handmaid [of justice], freedom is its child, peace is its companion, safety walks in its steps, victory follows in its train; it is the brightest emanation from the gospel; it is the attribute of God.” These words written over a century ago still ring true today. Let’s take the time to take a look at justice.
Whitehead 12 ______________________________________________________ Get Your Private, Free Email at http://www.hotmail.com Bibliography Works Cited United States. U.S. Government Accounting Office. Capital Punishment. Washington: GPO, 1994 Cheatwood, Derral and Keith Harries. The Geography of Execution: The Capital Punishment Quagmire in America. Rowman, 1996 NAACP Legal Defense Fund . Death Row. New York: Hein, 1996 “Ex-Death Row Inmate Cleared of Charges.” USA Today 11 Mar. 1999: 2A “Fatal Flaws: Innocence and the Death Penalty.” Amnesty International. 10 Oct. 1999 23 Oct. 1999 Gest, Ted. “House Without a Blue Print.” US News and World Report 8 Jul. 1996: 41 Stevens, Michelle. “Unfairness in Life and Death.” Chicago Sun-Times 7 Feb. 1999: 23A American Bar Association. The Task Ahead: Reconciling Justice with Politics. 1997 United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform Crime Report. Washington: GPO, 1994 Wickham, DeWayne. “Call for a Death Penalty Moratorium.” USA Today 8 Feb. 1999: 17A