Death Penalty Still Arbitrary and Capricious
This past week, Connecticut became the 17th state in the Nation to abolish the death penalty. Of the 33 states that still have the death penalty as a possible punishment for capital murder, 23 never or rarely carry out an execution. Thus, in effect, the death penalty is only used as a punishment in 10 states, most of them being in the deep South where slavery once existed.
So, it appears that the death penalty is slowly disappearing in the USA. That is good news as it indicates an "evolving standard of decency" in the U.S. Our nation is the only western, industrialized nation to use this punishment. We are in the company of such countries as China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia when it comes to exacting an eye for an eye.
In Texas, both death sentences and executions continue to decrease. One reason for this is that more and more citizens are becoming aware that our criminal justice system is not perfect and innocent people have been sent to death row. In Texas, 12 people have been exonerated and released from death row in the past 30 years, the latest being Anthony Graves who was released in 2010. Nationwide, approximately 140 people have been exonerated and released from death row. It is also true that several people with strong claims of innocence have been executed in Texas, people like Cameron Todd Willingham, Claude Jones, Ruben Cantu and Carlos Deluna.
A second reason why death sentences have been decreasing is that we now have an optional punishment of life without parole (LWOP) for someone who is found guilty of capital murder. Juries may prefer LWOP over a death sentence because it allows a mistake to be corrected if it is later found out that someone was actually innocent. LWOP is a very harsh sentence because a person is condemned to life in prison even if he becomes rehabilitated.
A third reason that death sentences have decreased is that the death penalty is significantly more expensive to carry out than life in prison. This is because of the huge legal costs associalted with capital punishment. Money wasted on the death penalty could be better used to prevent crime, solve "cold cases" and to help crime victims.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was being applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Subsequently, several states made changes to their laws and in 1976 the death penalty was again upheld by the Supreme Court. However, 36 years later, there is substantial evidence that the death penalty is still applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Economic, racial and geographic biases in the criminal justice system are well-documented. And there is no evidence that death penalty deters others from committing murder.
The death penalty should once again be declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and no longer practiced in the United States.
David Atwood is founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (www.tcadp.org)
1802 Kipling St.
Houston, TX 77098