Region, race and the death penalty
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 email@example.com.