As the looming tragedy of the Troy Davis case continues to unfold in our courts and across headlines, we southerners, as the ones doing most of the killing and dying on death row, owe it to ourselves to pause for a moment and consider the full weight of what is happening here in our names. Just what does it mean to execute a person in the United States? What ultimate purpose does it serve? Can our death penalty really be called criminal justice? These are difficult questions. But they are not just philosophical musings. Since the restoration of the death penalty in 1976, 1,136 people in the United States have been executed on death row. That figure includes the 34 executions (30 in the South) that have taken place in the first half of 2009 alone. With human lives hanging in the balance, the stakes could not be higher or more real. We must get serious about this. It’s time to begin cutting through the cynical rhetoric, political cowardice and blatant untruths that have thus far characterized the national debate over capital punishment. It’s time for an honest, informed conversation. Let’s start with the facts.
The facts surrounding Capital Punishment in the United States are disturbing and, for avid supporters, inconvenient. Taken together, they paint a portrait of a society that ranks the value of human life in accordance with race, gender and socio-economic status. Let’s be clear. Currently, there are 3,297 people on death row in the United States: 99% are male; 44% are white, 53% are African American or Latino — nearly all of them are poor (that in a nation with a population that is 49% male, 75% white, 12% African American, 13% Latino — you do the math).
The median education level of death row inmates is 11th grade. Half of those sentenced to death were between the ages of 20 and 29 at the time of arrest; 11% were age 19 or younger. What’s more, the vast majority of capital defendants lack the resources to pay for their own attorneys. Although the quality of legal representation is one of the most crucial factors in determining whether a person will receive a death sentence, the Texas Defender Service reports that “death row inmates today face a one-in-three chance of being executed without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney and without having any claims of innocence or unfairness presented or heard.” This is our brand of criminal justice. The by now notorious accounts of attorneys conducting capital proceedings under the influence of drugs or alcohol or even falling asleep in the midst of a trial are just the tip of the iceberg.
In addition, as the majority of studies have shown, there is also a strong correlation between the race of the victim and the death penalty. Stated plainly: those who murder whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murder non-whites. In cases where executions have occurred since 1976, for example, 14% of the victims were black, 5% were Hispanic and 79% were white (that in a nation where 48% of homicide victims are white and 49% are black — again, you do the math).
So, in the end, what do these figures mean? What does it mean to say that death row inmates are poor and un/under-represented? What does it mean to acknowledge that they are largely uneducated, unsupported and disproportionately black and Latino? You can attempt to offer justifications if you wish but the truth is that cells on death row are filled, not necessarily by the so-called “worst of the worst,” but, rather, by those most invisible and irrelevant members of our society; those we’d rather bury than respect; those who can very easily disappear without much fuss. Indeed, despite the pleasing moral symmetry offered in television shows such as “CSI” or “Cops” or even in some Supreme Court opinions, which delight in slicing all human interactions into neat categories of good and evil, and notwithstanding the undeniable brutality of the crimes for which these people are convicted, it is a profound mistake to overlook the fact that your average death row inmate has seen and experienced more violence, betrayal, abuse and neglect than non-invisible people care to imagine. That should matter but, routinely, it does not.
In fact, for nearly every person sentenced to die in America, death row is but the final stop at the end of a desperate path marked by dilapidated schools and housing, community and domestic violence, self-destruction and despair, poverty, racism, degradation, humiliation, a complete lack of opportunity and support, abusive and dysfunctional families, poor health care, inadequate resources and role models, drug abuse and no treatment, homelessness and mental illness. These stark realities do not justify the crimes we despise, but they do place them in their proper context. As one particularly eloquent capital punishment defender put it, “the death penalty is where all the contradictions converge. It is this country’s way of destroying the evidence of its failures, its hypocrisy, its shame.” It’s time we all gave this idea some thought.
Instead of continuing to kill more people every year — instead of paying to execute those who, despite their own actions, are a part and in many ways a product of much larger, systemic failings in this country — wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we began to address some of the ills that plague those damaged communities and broken institutions, which perpetuate violence and crime in our society? Wouldn’t it be better to avoid even the possibility of executing someone who, innocent or otherwise, doesn’t deserve it? Thirty-three years after the re-institution of the death penalty, is anyone actually better off?
Plus, probably the only thing that truly matters in the grand scheme of things — getting rid of the death penalty will save us all a lot of cash.