White America is slowly but surely coming to the realization that when government-created and funded systems fail minorities, the intended systems have not broken; rather, those systems are working exactly as intended. They directly reflect their creation on the backs of slaves as our nation was born. One of the most vile and haunting reminders of this racist and cruel origin is the continued existence of the federal death penalty. It is a personal moral decision whether you consider execution a proper punishment for individual cases where defendants have been fairly found guilty. But when innocent people become victims of capital punishment, which has happened too many times to be ignored, it is shocking that the justice system continues to rely on the death penalty as just retribution. Ultimately, while the prison industrial complex disproportionately preys upon Black and brown communities openly and without meaningful consequence, it is unjustifiable that the justice system acts beyond judge and jury as executioner.
The Biden era is an unprecedented moment in terms of government sentiment, as he is the first presidential hopeful to “openly campaign on abolishing the death penalty and win.” This policy stance sits in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s bloody final months, where the federal government executed 13 civilians, the most since 1896. The motivations behind this killing spree are unclear, but it is decidedly unusual given that there had only been 3 federal executions between the death penalty’s reinstatement in 1988 and Trump’s catastrophe of a presidential term.
On the administration’s rushed executions, Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said, “The end of administrations have been about exercising discretion to grant mercy. It has never been making discretionary choices to kill people. That’s what is particularly deviant about this execution spree.”
Biden has a clear opportunity to distance himself as much as possible from the previous term by taking the ultimate stance against federal executions and abolishing the death penalty. Abolition is a very different action than suspending executions or commuting sentences, as was Obama’s tactic. It is a lasting solution that would require comprehensive reform to the justice system in place of the death penalty, and it would create precedent that would be more difficult to undo than temporary haltings. Since Biden’s election in November, activists have been urging him to make the abolition of the death penalty a priority for his first months in office, especially since increased media conversations about murders at the hands of police are exposing the brokenness of prisons and law enforcement in lawfully determining guilt.
Facts Over Feelings
The presence of human error, usually driven by social bias, in arguments against an execution is allegedly only hypothetical. The legal proceedings that order executions are always supposed to be correct, having gone through multiple grueling checks and balances to arrive at that point. However, the prison justice system undoubtedly executes some innocent people. Prison reform activists know that the justice system is not built for the people it incriminates.
Black and Brown people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people are; Black and Brown communities are over-policed; police departments’ self-regulation is so flawed they fail to convict 98 percent of officers who committed a crime while in uniform; bail fees punish the poor. These policies, and so many more within our inherently racist society, show that the justice system is built to protect the White and the wealthy. The Pew Research Center recently released data on police relations with Black communities, and the numbers are damning. There was a consistent jump from 35 percent affirmative for Black people to 75 percent affirmative for White people when asked whether police were doing their jobs with proper force and without racial profiling. Unfortunately, those with the political power to help reconcile those numbers often pay attention to White voices over Black ones.
Given this dire reality, when there are inconsistencies around deciding if a sentencing is fair, it can reasonably be traced back to class and racial bias in the arrests, in the selection of the jury, in the sentencing itself, and in the refusal to re-sentence when new evidence is presented. One study shows that at minimum, 4.1 percent of people on death row would be exonerated if their cases were re-examined. If that information is applied to the number of people on death row in 2020 when the Trump administration went on a capital killing spree, roughly 2500 people, that accounts for over 100 lives. Those numbers are further socially complicated when we acknowledge that Black people account for 40 percent of the US prison population despite only making up about 13 percent of the country. For violent crimes, which the death penalty is primarily reserved for, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in recent years, 62 percent of people serving time were Hispanic or Black, respectively, compared to 48 percent White. Yet, White people account for more of the overall population and more of the violent crimes committed. The existence of these kinds of uncertainties at all is why the justice system should not be allowed to decide whether or not to murder people.
Guilty Until Proven Guilty
The 13th and final prisoner to be executed before Biden took office was Dustin Higgs. His is one such case where the courts were well within their rights and abilities to commute his sentence, but they did not, and now after 25 years of having been on death row, there is no reversing that decision. Higgs was accused of ordering the fatal shootings of three women in Maryland after a party at his residence. These women absolutely should not have died or experienced any pain that night. They should still be alive today, and any role Higgs may have had in their deaths or endangerment is abhorrent and worthy of criminal judgement. That being said, the man who committed the murders, Mr. Haynes, was given life in prison while Higgs was put on death row. Higgs has maintained his innocence throughout his decades of imprisonment, and his defense team pointed to a declaration that Mr. Haynes signed years after the crime in which he admitted that “Mr. Higgs did not threaten him nor make him do anything.” Amidst the Trump administration’s unprecedented speed run through the lives of death row inmates, Higgs’ defense team was not able to change his fate even while he was stricken with COVID-19, and he was put to death in the twilight of Biden’s election and inauguration. Here, we see the death penalty kill a potentially innocent man while the actual murderer lives out his days.
Anthony Graves was convicted and sentenced to death row back in 1994 for killing 6 people. He spent nearly 19 years “kidnapped by the state of Texas,” in his own words. 16 of those were spent in solitary confinement, and 12 of those were on death row, awaiting execution. He staunchly maintained his innocence from the day he was arrested, and in 2010 he was officially exonerated while the prosecutor of his case was charged with misconduct. He was awarded $1.45 million dollars from the state of Texas, an oddly definitive amount of money for the 19 years the state had spent attempting to crush an innocent man’s spirit. Here, we see the death penalty narrowly avoid killing an innocent man after inflicting irreversible damage on his livelihood.
In 1981, Gary Graham was sentenced to death at age 18, a legal adult but still a child in so many ways. He was convicted based on the shaky testimony of witnesses who were not even close enough to see him, there was no physical evidence, and key witnesses who refuted his involvement outside of the courtroom were not called to the stand. He maintained his innocence until the end, when he was murdered in 2000 after 19 years on death row. Here, we see the death penalty take the life of an innocent boy long before it actually ended his life.
Practicality of Abolition
Some might argue that in order to serve proper justice to truly despicable criminals on death row, those who have committed truly heinous and unforgivable crimes, we must keep the death penalty in place. Therefore, the few cases where wrongful deaths occur are worth the majority being “justifiably” put to death. However, this pushes the narrative that the justice system’s ultimate goal is to succeed in executions at the cost of innocent lives. Murdering innocent people to seek revenge is not justice. It should be seen as a positive when a prisoner’s execution is commuted, or new evidence that exonerates them is brought to light and they are served proper justice according to the law and the crime they committed. If there is even a chance that one more person’s life, especially if one more Black or Brown person’s life, can be saved from the system that oppresses them at every turn, we should be lunging at it.
There is also frequent discussion around the deterrent argument — that the threat of the death penalty will deter potential criminals. It is difficult to statistically support either side of this argument, as we cannot poll everyone who has thought about committing a crime but didn’t out of fear of capital murder. However, we can study things like the murder rates in a given population compared to the number of death row sentencings. The Death Penalty Information Center carried out a data analysis using numbers from 1987 through 2015; in short, it found that “the death penalty doesn’t drive murder rates; murder rates drive the death penalty.” On a larger scale, murder rates in 11 different countries that abolished the death penalty were examined, and “ten of those countries experienced a decline in murder rates in the decade following abolition.” Evidence points to the reality that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent, rather it is a scapegoat reaction to the societal effects of the prison industrial complex and broken infrastructure.
Abolishing the death penalty on a federal level as opposed to suspending it would most likely require the passage of a larger prison reform bill. Democrats have previously tried on an individual level to push bills through the senate, and there is hope in continuing the fight since Georgia upset its stalwart Republican representation by adding two blue seats this past election cycle. The biggest challenge for Democrats currently is the Senate filibuster; the slim minority can still avoid bringing bills to the table, especially on such contentious moral issues that tend to fall along party lines nationally. Abolishing the filibuster alone is unlikely, yet the abolition of the filibuster would be important to the Democrats in furthering their agenda. Republicans are holding on to the filibuster tightly as it is their vehicle of control whilst acting as the minority. But, the public support of the president could be key in prioritizing death penalty abolition in a prison reform bill, and in educating the public on the tragically high cases of human error in sentencing consistently targeted and underrepresented people to death. States are already looking ahead at this possibility, and Virginia recently became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty, joining a little less than a third of the US states that have already abandoned it. During the signing of the bill, Governor Northam pointedly noted that “296 of the 377 people executed by the state in the 20th century were [B]lack.”
The way we view just retribution should be overhauled and rebuilt so that the goal is saving lives and keeping people out of prison rather than the opposite. Biden’s criminal reform record has been decidedly spotty throughout his political career, but what matters is that right now he has the opportunity to push the movement for abolition further than it has ever gone before and make the death penalty nonexistent at the federal level so that states can follow suit. It is a difficult personal moral decision as to whether one thinks death is a correct punishment for aiding and abetting in another’s death. However, that moral question is irrelevant to the death penalty debate. The death penalty does not exist in a vacuum; it exists within an oppressive, racist system created out of unimaginable human suffering; it kills innocent people, and it cannot be trusted to decide the worth of a life.
Featured Image Source: Amnesty International