Re­gion, race and the death penalty

The Catoosa County News - - COMMENTARY - Ge­orge B. Reed Jr.

It is ironic, and also rather in­con­sis­tent, I think, that many of those who op­pose abor­tion as the tak­ing of hu­man life also tend to fa­vor the death penalty. But it has been proven by new DNA ev­i­dence and af­ter-the-fact con­fes­sions that we have con­victed in­no­cent peo­ple of cap­i­tal crimes. Since the re­in­state­ment of the death penalty in 1976, 136 peo­ple con­victed of mur­der have been re­leased from death row be­cause of later, more con­clu­sive ev­i­dence. Doesn’t this also sug­gest that oth­ers, equally in­no­cent, might not have been lucky enough to have had some­one plea for their case to be re­opened?

Our ad­ver­sar­ial sys­tem of crim­i­nal jus­tice is not with­out se­ri­ous flaws. In­com­pe­tent judges, bi­ased ju­ries, po­lit­i­cally am­bi­tious, overzeal­ous prose­cut­ing at­tor­neys and over­worked, un­der­qual­i­fied and un­der­paid as­signed de­fense at­tor­neys can sub­stan­tially in­flu­ence the out­come of a case. And so can the ac­cused’s eco­nomic sta­tus. The wealthy are al­most never ex­e­cuted and rel­a­tively few are ever con­victed. They can af­ford the very best de­fense at­tor­neys which can be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive for the less af­flu­ent. And of course racial fac­tors un­de­ni­ably in­flu­ence court de­ci­sions.

To­day 117 na­tions have dis­con­tin­ued the death penalty. We and Ja­pan are the only de­vel­oped na­tions still im­pos­ing it. And if cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment is such an ef­fec­tive de­ter­rent to mur­der, then why, with our high ex­e­cu­tion num­bers, does the U. S. also have one of the world’s high­est homi­cide rates? Ex­clud­ing Ja­pan, most other na­tions that im­pose the death penalty are con­sid­ered to be rel­a­tively bar­baric and un­civ­i­lized by western stan­dards: China, North Korea, Saudi Ara­bia, Iraq, Iran and many African na­tions.

As no big sur­prise, twelve of the fif­teen U. S. states with the high­est per capita ex­e­cu­tions are south­ern states, in­clud­ing all 11 states of the Old Confederacy. Of 1,264 ex­e­cu­tions since the restora­tion of the death penalty, 73 per­cent took place in the South. And when we in­tro­duce pop­u­la­tion pro­por­tion­al­ity into the equa­tion the num­bers be­come even more un­bal­anced.

As with so many other neg­a­tives, the South’s views on cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment have their roots in slav­ery. In the an­te­bel­lum South cap­i­tal crimes were not lim­ited to com­mon law felonies, but also in­cluded many acts that threat­ened the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery it­self such as slave steal­ing, con­ceal­ing slaves with the in­tent to free them and cir­cu­lat­ing “sedi­tious” lit­er­a­ture among slaves. Cer­tain sex of­fenses and even sec­ond con­vic­tions for forgery be­came cap­i­tal crimes in North Carolina. In the 1830s Vir­ginia had five cap­i­tal crimes for whites but al­most 70 for black slaves. Af­ter the Civil War racial bias be­came a stan­dard fea­ture of south­ern le­gal codes. Re­cent re­search by Columbia Univer­sity found that race was by far the big­gest fac­tor in death penalty ad­vo­cacy among south­ern­ers.

I am per­son­ally op­posed to the death penalty based on one prin­ci­ple alone: Isn’t it far bet­ter to al­low a hun­dred guilty peo­ple to live (but not go un­pun­ished, mind you) than to ex­e­cute one in­no­cent per­son?

Ge­orge B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at reed1600@bell­south.net.

Rossville res­i­dent

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