Op-ed | Abolish the death penalty
Published: Monday, September 17, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 17, 2012 08:09
“You’re kidding me. We don’t execute people on the Sabbath. Well that’s about the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard.” — Leo McGarry, “The West Wing” (1999-2006).
One year ago this Friday, a man named Troy Davis was executed in Georgia. I was on Tufts’ campus when it happened. I remember that they were going to kill him at 7 p.m., but there were delays, and so it wasn’t until 10:53 p.m. that the state of Georgia stuck a needle in the man’s arm and watched the life drain from his body. He had been found guilty of murder at the age of 21. Between 1989 and 2011, his case was appealed again and again. The prosecution had no physical evidence. The witnesses changed their testimonies. The murder weapon was never recovered. And so, executions were stayed and rescheduled and pushed aside. But after another 21 years of his life spent sitting on death row, Troy was finally put to death. He maintained his innocence to the end.
We live in a country, one of the few remaining in the world, which still kills its citizens for punishment. In 2011, we were one of just 20 countries worldwide to perform executions. In 2011, we executed 43 men — and no women. On a yearly basis, we fall behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq in the number of citizens we execute.
We haven’t always been so eager to execute. In 1972, in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court actually declared the death penalty unconstitutional under the 8th and 14th amendments. Four years later, however, the ruling was overturned.
Since that time we have seen a trend, both worldwide and in the United States, which moves away from the practice of executing our prisoners. In the last decade, 11 countries stopped performing executions. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited use of the death penalty on the mentally disabled; in 2005, it stopped the execution of juvenile offenders.
Seventeen U.S. states have individually abolished the death penalty, with Connecticut doing so as recently as April. In November, California residents will have the opportunity to vote on Proposition 34, a ban on their death penalty. That’s estimated to save the state over $300 million in legal fees per execution.
This anti-death-penalty trend shouldn’t come as a surprise. Prosecuting a death sentence is expensive because of the appeals to which the defendant is entitled. Moreover, performing an execution is frankly unnecessary, as the prisoner has already been captured, disarmed, and securely tucked away from society. But perhaps most importantly, killing a convicted criminal is irreversible.
Since 1973, the U.S. has released 140 individuals from death row. As in, we let them go. As in, we had the wrong guy. There he was, lined up to be executed, and someone comes strolling into the prison with a smile on his face, “Guess what? Turns out, a jury of your peers can make a mistake now and then!” Ohio let a man named Joe D’Ambrosio go free earlier this year. That means we’re still finding people on death row today who are innocent.
And yet, despite an expensive and erroneous system, we continue to sentence people to death. This is beginning to sound even more “bizarre” than Leo may have realized.
At least that’s what the majority of the civilized world seems to think. I’m actually writing this from Edinburgh, Scotland, where I’m studying abroad for the semester. Sure enough, I went to an activities fair here, and one of the first groups I found was Amnesty International. There were a handful of Scottish students there organizing to oppose capital punishment in America. Here in Europe, they’ve heard of what we do. And they think it’s backwards.
It is backwards, and it’s cruel. It is the height of “cruel and unusual” punishment, perhaps not by colonial standards, but by the standards of the 21st century. It is the resort of tyrants and dictators; it is the end of gallows and gas chambers. Our country is supposed to guarantee “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Life’s at the top of the list. We already have life in prison without parole. We can live without the death penalty.
Of course, I know that an opinion piece in a college newspaper isn’t going to change the nation overnight. President Obama isn’t going to pick this up and begin dishing out presidential pardons, and Justice Roberts isn’t going to find this on his desk and ask the Supreme Court to take up a landmark death penalty case.
But I also know that we’re nine states away from having an abolition majority. I know that in the last five years, five states have renounced the death penalty, and the next five years will see more. I know that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down capital punishment before, creating the precedent for it to do so again.
In 1970, a Jumbo named Bill Richardson graduated Tufts with a dual degree in French and Political Science. In 2009, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico abolished his state’s death penalty.
I encourage my fellow Jumbos to talk about the death penalty. Learn about it. Ask your friends if they’ve thought about it and what they think. Notice when the country is doing something that just doesn’t seem right, when there’s something “bizarre” going on -— it’s going to be our country soon, and we’re going to have the opportunity to change it.
Brian Pilchik is a junior who is majoring in computer science and political science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.