By Tyler Gund
As one of his first headline-worthy moves as Governor of PA, Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on the state’s death penalty statue. This has, predictably, been heralded by progressives, and decried by those who, like former Texas Governor Rick Perry, believe that those sentenced as criminals deserve the “ultimate justice”. Yet while there can be no doubt about the remarkable agony experienced by those whose lives, families, and communities have been harmed by crime and murder, the fact of the matter is that the capital punishment is inhumane, assumes unquestionable accuracy in the criminal justice system, and represents an egregious overreach of government.
The inhumanity of the death penalty, to begin with, has been well documented over the past year. We have seen it in high profile cases in Alabama, where a botched lethal injection resulted in death by heart attack, and right in neighboring Ohio, where a new combination of lethal injection drugs lead to a man visibly gasping and convulsing before his death. Moreover, it should speak volumes that the reason these haphazard drug combinations are being used in lethal injections is because, facing ire of public opinion, drug companies have largely either ceased producing lethal injection drugs, or produced them with the stipulation that they not be used in executions The result, as Fordham Law School professor Deborah W. Denno described it in 2013, is states with death penalty statues just scrambling for drugs, and…changing their protocols rapidly and carelessly.” Through this prism alone, Governor Wolf’s moratorium makes sense: when dealing with death, we should expect our government to be as cautious, thorough, and reasonable as possible.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a legal scholar or historian to understand that the U.S. criminal justice system is riddled with issues. And therein lies another fundamental problem with capital punishment: conceding that the death of and individual at the hands of the state is justified requires the concession that our system of justice is infallible—essentially, that those on death row are definitively guilty of their crimes. The fact of the matter, though, is that this just is not the case. As deathpenaltyinfo.org notes, from 2000-2011, there has been an average of five exonerations of death row inmates per year. What is more, over, 140 people have been released from death row since the death penalty was legalized in 1973. It is worth bearing in mind that this doesn’t mean only 140 people have been worthy of release since 1973—merely that those are the cases where the resources have been in place for them to be tried again and given a fair shake. As Amnesty International notes, “Each prosecutor decides whether or not to seek the death penalty. Local politics, the location of the crime, plea bargaining, and pure chance affect the process and make it a lottery of who lives and who dies,” while “Almost all death row inmates could not afford their own attorney at trial. Court-appointed attorneys often lack the experience necessary for capital trials and are overworked and underpaid.”
The arbitrariness of how the death penalty is doled out, as implied by Amnesty International, highlights the ultimate irony of capital punishment: for a country so preoccupied with the ills of government overreach, we, at the end of the day, are somehow okay with the government committing homicide. As Republican state representative Mike Vereb puts it, “Pennsylvania crime victims deserve justice. What they are receiving from the governor is politics” (Pennlive.com). But the fact of the matter is that “justice”—as he describes capital punishment—is a system where, “since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (77%) have been executed for killing white victims, even though African-Americans make up about half of all homicide victims”. “Justice,” as described by representative Vereb, is a system where, in states having conducted reviews of race and the death penalty, 96% have found a pattern of “either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both” (deathpenaltyinfo.org). Study after study, as deathpenaltyinfo.org notes, has revealed that black defendants are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants. And therein lies in the truth behind representative Vereb’s claim: “justice,” in the U.S., protects a racist ideology that we all need to work to combat.
In announcing Pennsylvania’s moratorium on the death penalty, Governor Wolf “cite[d] a 2003 report by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System that found “strong indications that Pennsylvania’s capital system does not operate in an evenhanded manner” where gender and racial bias is concerned” (Huffington Post). Governor Wolf’s auctions are certainly laudable, and we need to acknowledge that it is the very least that can be done to fight bias and injustice in the criminal justice system.
Staff, CNN. “Death Penalty Facts That May Surprise You.” CNN. Cable News Network, 8 Sept. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015
Fernandez, Manny. “Executions Stall as States Seek Different Drugs.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 Nov. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.
“Death Penalty Information Center: Facts about the Death Penalty.” Death Penalty Information Center. Death Penalty Information Center, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
“Death Penalty and Arbitrariness.” Amnesty International USA. Amensty International USA, May 2012. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.
Murphy, Jan. “Gov. Tom Wolf’s Death Penalty Moratorium Not Sitting Well with Crime Victims, Others.” PennLive. PA Media Group4, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.
Bellware, Kim. “Pennsylvania Governor’s Death Penalty Moratorium Under Fire.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 5 Mar. 2015. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.