Sisyphus on the Hill: Implementing the Death Penalty in the USA

Below is a draft article on the impracticality of implementing the death penalty in the USA.

DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT…on my virtual soapbox that no one reads…which is okay.  Boo hoo

(Intro Paragraph Here)


1. Charge of Institutional Racial Discrimination

While “racism” isn’t a legal term in the USA, “racial discrimination” certainly is a legal term .

I submit, to be bold, that the United States legal system in general commits racial discrimination in its practices of determining guilt and in its sentencing.

I realize this is a bold statement. However, there are numerous studies that support and truth of what I submit: In general, the USA at the state and federal levels has a demonstrated inclination to convict black Americans more often than whites and Hispanics for the same crimes. It also has, again proved out by numerous studies, to arrest black people at the local levels , and treat them more harshly, generally, more often than whites. Furthermore, American society has a tendency to send black Americans to jail for longer terms than for the same crimes committed by white and Hispanic Americans.

Because of this “j’accuse!” on my part, I also submit that because of this obvious racial discrimination, the USA, until and if it can fix this issue of institutional racial discrimination, should issue an immediate moratorium on executions -the most extreme act of government in taking the life of its own citizens- in the United States.

This is all the more an urgent matter as close to 40% of the prison population is black, while blacks are only about 13% of the general population. This is an obvious indicator that there is a problem regarding institutional racial discrimination.

Yes! This could indicate that because of their poverty, because of their higher unemployment rate, that part of the reason that there are more blacks in prison than whites may be due to those conditions. But really, if that is true, then is it truly just to convict them at higher rates because they’re poor and unemployed? When distributive justice is injured, is it any surprise that legal justice is as well?

Yes! It could also indicate disparate legal representation between whites and minorities due to factors such as poverty. Again, I ask: If that is true, is it just to convict them at higher rates because they can’t afford expensive lawyers? When commutative justice is injured, is it any surprise that social justice is as well?

I submit however, that the incarceration rates are so skewed against black Americans that there is a much larger issue at hand than poverty, unemployment and legal representation.

2. The human tendency towards error precludes a truly just implementation of the death penalty.

There is no graver action society can take than that of executing its own citizens. This is borne out throughout the history of Western civilization as our culture has ancient, ancient principles about the wrongful executions:

William Blackstone, the famed jurist: (around 1765): “”better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”

Benjamin Franklin: “”it is better one hundred guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer”

Sir John Fescue (1470): “One would much rather that twenty guilty persons should escape the punishment of death, than that one innocent person should be condemned and suffer capitally.”

Maimonides (around the year 1200): “”it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”

The Bible, when Abraham was trying to spare the city of Sodom: “Abraham drew near, and said, “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous within the city? Will you consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it?.. What if ten are found there?” He [The Lord] said, “I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.”

Science has given us what the above people could only dream: Through DNA analyses, a partial window in the accuracy of our conviction rates. A partial window, mind you, as not all death penalty convictions hinge on DNA evidence, which may not be available. That is, as DNA has shown that capital cases involving DNA have a high number of wrong convictions, it’s reasonable to assume that cases not involving DNA also have a high number of wrongful convictions.

Furthermore, there is a backlog of about 400,000 DNA analysis across the nation. This means that we can’t conduct DNA analysis on anything like a timely basis. Until we do something about that backlog, until we can at least reduce the percentage of innocent people in prison, and yes, death row, then it’s wrong to continue this practice.

For the sake of the innocent, whether they be few or many, a moratorium is called for. I’m not the only one saying this. Republican Governor George Ryan of Illinois announced a moratorium on the death penalty about a decade ago, saying , “I can’t support a system which in its administration has proven to be so fraught with error that it has come so close to the ultimate nightmare: The state’s taking of innocent life.” He was followed by other governors. They recognized that accuracy is problematic and, in the taking of life, we must act very, very carefully.

3. We can’t afford it.

I submit as well, that regardless of the morality of the death penalty, the expense make it impractical.

It’s not surprising, here in “incarceration nation”, where 5% of the world’s population holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, where for the first time, more is spent on building prisons than on building and maintaining colleges, where the number of prisons has skyrocketed to incredible numbers, where a *huge* part of our taxes, and in a society that recognizes the gravity of killing its own citizens…well, it’s no surprise that death penalty are so expensive.

How expensive? VERY expensive, with the expenses ranging from high to incredible. I can get into the details (and eventually will in this pseudo-article), but there’s no dispute: Billions are spent on death penalty cases that would be much less expensive for life imprisonment, and let’s face it, is it moral to exhaust county, state, and federal resources when so much is being cut elsewhere?

As the attorney general of Massachusetts, Scott Harshbarger states, “Virtually every major program designed to address the underlying causes of violence and to support the poor, vulnerable, powerless victims of crime is being cut even further to the bone. … In this context, the proposition that the death penalty is a needed addition to our arsenal of weapons lacks credibility and is, as a sheer matter of equity, morally irresponsible. If this is really the best we can do, then our public value system is bankrupt and we have truly lost our way.”



Reading….American Creation

Reading:  American Creation by Joseph Ellis

More “short stories” (of sorts) by the acclaimed historian on the two decades following independence.  He not only focuses on the brilliant successes of the period, but also the brilliant failures, if you will:  The treatment of Native Americans and of course, slavery.  Their failure to address these issue resulted, of course, in great tragedy.   His format does a great job in cutting through the mythology that stands in for real knowledge in today’s conversations.