THE DEATH PENALTY - A NATIONAL SIN WORTHY OF ABOLITION
All signs indicate that we are getting close to a significant change in American history. For several years now there has been more and more questions about the appropriateness of the death penalty in the United States. The U.S. is the only western democracy to retain this practice. There have been over 700 executions since the death penalty was resumed in the USA in the mid 1970s, and there are over 3500 people on the nation's death rows. Close to 100 people who were sentenced to death have been exonerated and released from prison in recent years. Undoubtedly, some innocent people have been executed.
Society can be protected by long-term incarceration of dangerous criminals. Also, studies have shown that the death penalty has no deterrent effect. The arbitrary and capricious nature of the death penalty has been demonstrated again and again. Economic, racial and geographic biases in the application of the death penalty are obvious. It is clearly a time for change.
There are, I believe, similarities between the United States at the beginning of the Third Millennium with regard to the death penalty and the United States in the 1800s with regard to slavery. In 1829, William Lloyd Garrison stated in a speech at the Park Street Church in Boston that slavery was a 'national sin' that all Christians in America had a duty to subdue. He believed it was the 'sacred duty of the nation' to immediately abolish the system of slavery.
It seems clear today that the death penalty is also a ‘national sin’ that is poisoning the nation. I believe that all citizens of good will, regardless of race, religion or ethnic background, have a sacred duty to abolish the heinous practice.
In the 1800s, a spokesman for John C. Calhoun, a politician from South Carolina who strongly defended slavery said ‘We must satisfy the consciences, we must allay the fears of our own people….We must satisfy them that slavery is of itself right – that it is not a sin against God – that it is not an evil….In this way, and this way only, can we prepare our own people to defend their institutions’. Today we have many conservative politicians and so called ‘Christians’ who defend the death penalty by saying that it is a just response to violent crime and the will of God. These people are as wrong about the death penalty today as John C. Calhoun was about slavery in the 1800s.
In the 1800s, there were many political and church leaders who had serious doubts about the morality of slavery, but refused to speak out for fear of causing dissention and loosing their popularity. Today a similar phenomenon exists with regard to the death penalty. Relatively few political and church leaders have courageously spoken out against this practice, even if they believe it to be wrong.
In the 1800s, many people of good will, such as William Lloyd Garrison, spoke out courageously against slavery. They were often persecuted for their views and sometimes they were physically attacked. Today, more and more people of good will are courageously speaking out against the death penalty, knowing that it is immoral, unnecessary and bad public policy. They are often ridiculed by right-wing politicians, district attorneys and victims’ advocates for speaking out against this evil practice.
In the 1800s, many politicians believed that slavery was a states’ rights issue and that the federal government had no right to interfere with this practice. Today, many politicians believe that, except for federal crimes, the death penalty is solely a stats’ rights issue. I would dispute that thought process. The death penalty is a serious problem facing the entire nation, not just individual states.
In the 1970s, executions in the United States were halted when the US Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was being applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Today, the death penalty is still being applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Because this has become obvious, there are many efforts both at the state and national level to declare, once again, a moratorium on executions while the criminal justice system is studied and improved. These efforts are commendable and should continue. However, it is also true that the justice system is made up of imperfect human beings. More procedural safeguards, while very desirable, will not improve the system to the point that it will be fair to all people and exclude the possibility of executing innocent people. Therefore a permanent moratorium on executions would be the most appropriate action.
We should also consider an amendment to the US Constitution to abolish the death penalty as was done in the 1800s with slavery. The Eight Amendment to the Constitution prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. The death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, not only because it is still applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner, but also because it is the UNNECESSARY TAKING OF HUMAN LIFE. As stated earlier, society can be protected by long term incarceration of dangerous criminals. Therefore, there is no need to continue with executions in today’s modern society.
To conclude, the death penalty is a ‘national sin’, in the same was that slavery was a national sin in the 1800s. Our politicians should take courageous action today and abolish the death penalty just as politicians did with slavery in the 1800s. In the meantime, a nationwide moratorium on executions should be imposed.
1802 Kipling St.
Houston, TX 77098
Dave Atwood is the co-founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.