The Position of Justice: Denied on the Death Penalty

By William Kreuter, with contributions from Sheila Eaken

Justice: Denied opposes capital punishment under all circumstances. As a magazine devoted to helping people who have been wrongly convicted, our position stems in largest part from the appalling number of persons sentenced to death but later released due to the likelihood of their innocence -- nationally, one such prisoner for every seven others who were executed. In Illinois, as many prisoners have been released from death row because their cases fell apart as have been executed. We demand to know how many among the six hundred prisoners executed since 1977 were innocent, given that over two thousand death sentences have been overturned in this period due to violation of defendants' rights, erroneous court rulings or shoddiness of the cases.

However, we maintain that the time for complete abolition of the death penalty is long past, irrespective of guilt or innocence. Capital punishment is a relic now shunned by virtually the entire democratic world. On November 10, Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin introduced S. 1917, the Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 1999. Although this legislation would affect only the rarely imposed federal death penalty and it faces, to say the least, an uphill battle, it deserves a letter of support to your state's two US senators.

Senator Feingold said on introducing the legislation, "The death penalty is at odds with our best traditions. It is wrong and it is immoral. The adage 'two wrongs do not make a right' could not be more appropriate here....

"The use of the death penalty by the United States stands in stark contrast to the majority of nations that have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty. And soon, Italy and other European nations are expected to introduce a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for a worldwide moratorium. The European Union bans membership in the Union to nations that use the death penalty."

Besides the effect of the death penalty on the standing of the United States among the nations of the world, Feingold also alluded to many other concerns we share, including the releases from death row of innocent prisoners. He mentioned the racism inherent in applying capital punishment and the accepted fact that the death penalty is not a deterrent.

Elaborating on Feingold's remarks, we note that the death penalty is applied very unevenly, with most executions occurring in just a few states. Of those, just a few Texas counties account for a large fraction. We point out that even the US Supreme Court has conceded that those convicted of killing whites are much more likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted of killing blacks. Almost without exception, the death penalty is meted out (as noted capital defense lawyer Stephen Bright says) not to the worst criminals, but to those having the worst lawyers.

One searches in vain for the rich and the upper middle class on death row. One instead finds the mentally ill and retarded, minorities, those with lawyers who were drunk or asleep at trial, or occasionally those with fringe politics.

Incompetent or disastrously underpaid defense is among the major practical problems with the capital punishment system that were discussed in a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune in November. Faulty evidence and prosecutors' dishonest tactics are also cited. These articles are reprinted at click on "articles" on the "issues and positions" button.

As Senator Feingold says, capital punishment is useless as a deterrent to future murderers. Most murders are heat-of-the-moment crimes or are committed by the irrational or drugged-out who are hardly going to weigh costs, benefits and risks. Most American police chiefs agree, and it's borne out by almost every academic study. Even in China, where thousands of executions annually are held within a day or two of a kangaroo trial, crime is not reduced by the use of capital punishment.

Murder rates declined sharply in Canada after that country abolished the death penalty in 1976; the experience has been similar around the world. In the United States, the twelve states without the death penalty are no less safe than those conducting executions.

Some studies also find a counter-deterrent effect -- that is, murder rates go up in response to executions. The lesson of brutality, that killing is a good response to problems, is easily learned. When killing at the hand of the state is rationalized, we should expect some members of society to rationalize killing as individuals. As the Christian Science Monitor recently editorialized, 'State-sanctioned killing is at odds with the need to reduce the level of violence in society.'"

In some cases there is no doubt that capital punishment has prompted murder. In Washington state, for example, Jeremy Sagastegui stated clearly that he had committed his crimes because he wanted suicide by execution. His execution for a triple homicide was rushed through by a judicial system eager to accommodate his wishes. Sagastegui's three victims would be alive today if Washington had abolished the death penalty.

The death penalty is also several times more expensive than life without parole. The costs leading up to execution are as much as several million dollars more expensive than trying and incarcerating a prisoner for life. The bulk of this expense is incurred prior to any appeals. Limiting appeals is in vogue, but the further this happens, the more likely it will be that innocent prisoners will be executed. The 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act has already been a disaster for prisoners trying to prove their innocence on appeal.

We join Senator Feingold in asking, "What has happened to our nation's sense of striving to do what we know to be the right thing? Those who favor the death penalty should be pressed to explain why fallible human beings should presume to use the power of the state to extinguish the life of a fellow  human being on our collective behalf." We maintain that to kill a prisoner  who is already helpless in the custody of the state is counterproductive and pointless vengeance. If killing is bad, let's start with our own example. Murderers should not set our moral tone, for when killing is made acceptable for any reason, we turn into our own enemy.

William Kreuter is Washington State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International, and he serves on the steering committee of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He wrote the article about Mumia Abu-Jamal which appeared in Issue 7 of Justice: Denied.