posted 2011-10-05 13:45:03

The Death Penalty: Holding On to Brutish Behavior - A Case Against the Death Penalty

Photo by Mimiko Watanabe
Photo by Mimiko Watanabe
Jennifer De Jesus

Contributing Writer

The recent execution of Troy Davis, an African American sports coach who was convicted of killing a white police officer 22 years ago in Savannah, Georgia, has revived debates about the death penalty in the United States.

In recent years, seven of the nine witnesses who testified against Davis have recanted their testimonies. One of those who recanted, Antoine Williams, subsequently revealed they had no idea who shot the officer and that they were illiterate– meaning they could not read the police statements that they had signed at the time of the murder in 1989. Others said they had falsely testified that they had overheard Davis confess to the murder. Many of those who retracted their statements said they had been cajoled by police into testifying against Davis. Some said they had been threatened with being put on trial themselves if they did not co-operate.

Yet, higher courts have repeatedly refused to grant Davis a retrial on the grounds that he had failed to prove his innocence. But, when it comes to the ultimate punishment, the conviction should be beyond any reasonable doubt.  This case emphasizes the flaws in an outdated system. The United States is the last Western democracy to maintain the death penalty. We are joined by other human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia, China and Libya.  Further, when the reasoning supporting capital punishment is examined, the rationale behind it falls apart.

Proponents of capital punishment argue that it is more cost-efficient to execute someone that to keep them in jail for life. According to Urban Institute, a nonpartisan public policy group, from beginning to end (including multiple appeals, court fees, lawyer’s fee, etc) it costs a state prosecutor $1.9 million more to place someone on death row than to achieve a conviction for life. This figure does not even include the fact that 82% of cases in which prosecutors seek the death penalty result in life sentences, while still accruing to the state the inflated costs.

Those figures, however, are calculated on the averages of particular cases. For the states that maintain the death penalty, the cost can be tremendous. The death penalty in California, for example, has cost taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life. The state has executed 13 people since 1976, resulting in a total of $250 million per execution, according to the New York Times, (“High Cost of Death Row”, 2009, “Citing Cost, States Consider End to Death Penalty”, 2009).

Others argue that capital punishment deters potential criminals from committing crimes.  Out of all the arguments for the death penalty, this one seems the most nonsensical. If someone is willing to commit murder, they are clearly not following the code of ethics that would then deter them from carrying out said crime. The idea that murderers carefully weigh the consequences of capital punishment, before committing a violent crime in the heat of the moment, is nothing but preposterous. In 2001, Janet Reno, former US Attorney General, was even quoted saying: I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.”

Yet the biggest reason that the death penalty should be eliminated is because of the discrimination that it fosters. When it comes to capital punishment, a person’s race can determine the outcome. There are no rules that mandate which crimes should require the death penalty.  Instead it must be sought by the prosecution or the attorney general. A Department of Justice study revealed that U.S. Attorneys recommended the death penalty in 36 % of the cases with black defendants and white victims, but only recommended the death penalty in 20 % of the cases with black defendants and black victims. End result: the same crimes get more severe punishments depending on the victim’s race.   The message is clear: the question is not whether to kill or not, but whom to kill.

Although there are several more reasons for the elimination of the death penalty, the last—and most important one to me—is the lack of assurance that no innocent people are unfairly put to death. With the case of Troy Davis, such doubt existed that foreign countries and the UN asked for his pardon, and yet he was executed. 139 other inmates have been released from death row because evidence has proven they were innocent, some within moments of their execution.