As I began this blog, I was hoping to learn about the death penalty: the issues surrounding it, the processes involved, statistics regarding capital punishment, etc. And while I have discovered most of the answers to these questions, my research has finally brought me to the most fundamental question: why does the death penalty still exist in North Carolina, and in the United States as a whole?
In a country that has been at the forefront of tolerance, care for society’s marginalized, and social change, why does the death penalty still exist? Out of 196 countries in today’s world, only 58 still permit the use of the death penalty. Of these, the United States makes number 5 on the list of 10 countries with the most executions. Looking at the this list, I noticed (and then did some research to confirm) that every other country on it was considered a third world country in some regard, whether it be in terms of poverty, human development, press freedom, Gross National Income, or political rights. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, says on his website that, “[s]ince the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 1369 men, women, children, and mentally ill people have been shot, hanged, asphyxiated, lethally injected, and electrocuted by States and the federal government.” The United States is a superpower in today’s world, and is the advocate of freedom and protection of rights. Why, then, is it that capital punishment is still being used?
In one of my recent blog posts, I discussed the percent of Americans who are in favor of the death penalty, and then presented a study that showed what the reasoning was behind this favoring of capital punishment over a life in prison. An overwhelming response seems to be the notion of, “An eye for an eye”, or, similarly, that “[the criminals] deserve it” . Americans have defined our system as one in which justice is based on retribution, rather than a justice based on mercy and the protection of all of a government’s citizens.
The other thing that is interesting to note is the possibility of innocent people being put to death under our country’s current use of capital punishment. Since 1973, there have been 186 death row inmates exonerated, saving them from an execution for a crime they did not commit. If there are this many people actually proven innocent, we can be certain that there have been more that were actually killed, though innocent. The Death Penalty Information Center discusses the possibility of innocence by bringing up the 1972 Supreme Court’s Furman vs. Georgia ruling that the death penalty procedure at that time was, “arbitrary and capricious and therefore unconstitutional”. They thought that this would protect innocent people from being executed, but the reality is that not much changed in the years following this case. A key quote from this case is that, “[n]o matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony, and human error remain all too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain that there were some.” Because capital cases are so human, and therefore, subject to error, is it justified to end the lives innocent people in order to kill those who warrant it? What kind of a society is willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent people, however few they might be?
The next thing is the mentally ill, which I discussed briefly in my last post. Something I want to touch on here is that in Ford vs. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled that insane people can be exempt from the death penalty, insofar as they don’t realize that what they did was wrong. As for the mentally ill, the only thing preventing them from being put on death row is their inability to realize that they are going to be executed. In either of these cases, once the individual is cognizant of the situation at hand, (that their past actions were wrong, or that they are going to be put to death), they are then able to be executed. Capital Punishment in Context gives an example of this, where a “Charles Singleton, whose paranoid schizophrenia caused him to believe his victim was still alive and his cell was inhabited by demons. He was forcibly medicated in order to make him mentally competent for his execution in Arkansas on January 6, 2004.”
In the United States Bill of Rights, we as Americans are protected from “cruel and unusual punishment”. To me, this treatment of the insane and/or mentally ill falls under this category. People are being put to death for crimes in which they were not fully competent. Although these Supreme Court rulings help criminals who are facing these unfair situations, there is still a long way to go. Not to mention, as Bryan Stevenson says in his book Just Mercy, the amount of people who are mentally ill who do not have this taken into account during their trials. He tells the stories of quite a few people who reached out to him while on death penalty, and as he visited them and realized things were off, talked to train professionals to confirm this was true, and looked at transcripts of their trials, found that their mental state was not even mentioned in any of the trials that bargained for the life of the criminal at hand. If Bryan Stevenson, only one lawyer in the whole system, has found countless cases as a testimony to this unfortunate flaw the system, how many more must there be?
Lastly, I wanted to acknowledge one of the first things I found when I began researching the death penalty. From the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, I was able to find the treatment of typical prisoners on death row. Something I noticed was that they are only able to receive visits once a week, from a maximum of 2 visitors. During these visits, physical contact is not allowed. I went on to search for the effect of physical contact on the human person, and found an article discussing a study that proved that, “human touch has wide-ranging physical and emotional benefits for people of all age groups.” I think this is just a final little proof that even though these criminals may have done wrong, they are human. By taking away personal contact, and then ultimately having them executed, society is stripping human beings of their basic rights, which should be protected by our government.
To conclude this post, I want to acknowledge again one of the top reasons that Americans today are in favor of the death penalty: “An eye for an eye”. Before I even knew that this was the reasoning behind many of those in favor of capital punishment, throughout my research I had been thinking repeatedly of the phrase spoken by Gandhi, one of the great contemporary peacemakers of our time, who said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” In order for our society to really advance, we need to recognize what is holding us back, and it is this idea that justice can only reconciled through retribution. Justice is necessary, but it should be used to protect, to teach, and to better society as a whole.
As Bryan Stevenson said in a talk at the University of North Carolina on August 17th, “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is Justice”. That is the type of justice that should be governing our prison systems.