Death penalty: Moratorium is still needed
11:00 pm
Thu April 17, 2008

Death penalty: Moratorium is still needed

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling rejecting the argument that lethal
injection is inhumane allowed some states to resume executions, but it
only addresses a small sliver of the controversy. Justice Stevens went
on record stating that the practice of capital punishment might very
well be unconstitutional.

 

about the author

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD, grew
up in Edwardsville and is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois
Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill.

Regardless of your belief on the matter, you should know
that the larger argument against capital punishment is grounded
in dynamics that go far beyond what method is used. Recent research
has provided compelling evidence that race plays a major role in the
death penalty. We should be arguing for a moratorium on the grounds
that the punishment is administered in a consistently biased manner.

Race
plays a role in numerous ways: the investigation of a crime, the jury
selection, the media portrayal, and the charges brought against the
defendant.

The most striking statistic is that, compared to a white defendant
killing a black victim, a black person killing a white person is up
to 30 times more likely to receive the death penalty.

You might say
that murder is such a heinous crime that if a few innocent people are
killed in the process of administering capital punishment, it is acceptable.
But 30 times more likely -- that’s more than a few.

We can even turn to
recent news to reiterate the significant ways race has influenced the
system. Last year in Dallas county, Texas, an African-American man, was
exonerated by DNA testing. You might argue again that this is simply
one example: a byproduct of an aggressive hunt to keep murderers
off of the streets, which is going to yield some false positives. What if I
then told you that he was the 12th person in the past 15
years in this ONE county whose conviction was overturned?

This type
of story is not specific to Texas, and it provides a glaring reflection
of what is wrong with our system.

It
would behoove us to take a step back and think about why so many cases
are being overturned by DNA evidence. The short answer is that we got
it wrong. In some cases we can’t be sure if the error occurred in
the assumptions made in the investigation, the jury selection, the charges
filed, or a combination of these factors. The reality is that somewhere
along the line, we sentenced to death individuals who did not commit
the crime.

Was it that we assumed a black male is more likely guilty
than innocent and followed a cold lead? Or was it the racialized portrayal
of crime in the media that skewed the assumptions of potential and future
jurors? It could also be the practice of limiting racial diversity
in juries for fear of sympathy. Thankfully, this practice has been exposed.
Unfortunately, this practice of using race as a factor in eliminating
potential jurors - although ruled a violation of the 14th amendment -
had to be revisited in 2005 in two separate cases.

I recently took one of my classes to see the film, "Race to Execution,"
which boldly presents evidence of the ways race affects our legal
system. In it, an African-American man who was exonerated based on DNA
evidence after over a decade on death row spoke about his experience.
What struck me the most were the ways in which evidence was stacked
against him:

  • The police had a bloody jacket that did not fit him.
  • The blood stains
    on his shoes were later tested and found to be chocolate.
  • The public
    defender he received had never tried a murder case.

He’s now “free”
(i.e., not behind bars). However he spoke candidly about how his job
and housing prospects are bleak given his fraudulent incarceration.
I’m sure similar stories exist, but this one stands out in my mind,
because I was witness to its retelling. I was outraged, upset and disappointed.
My tax dollars help to support this botched system.

If
we are going to engage in a practice of selectively ending the lives
of individuals, shouldn’t we also be willing to make sure the system
is working?

If you are a proponent of capital punishment -- and have read
this far -- recognize that I am not simply saying we should abolish it
on a moral basis. I am stating that in its current state, how can we
not? It’s blatantly flawed.

Perhaps if we would own up to the disparities
and minimize the potential for bias, we can have the debate over whether
capital punishment is moral or constitutional. Until then, we should
follow the lead of former Illinois governor, George Ryan, in one respect, by advocating for a moratorium.