As support for the death penalty continues to wane
, those who still count themselves as backers of the system tend to hedge their support within two consistent parameters — only when we are absolutely certain it’s the right person, and only for the worst of the worst crimes.
At this point, it has been thoroughly proven that the government is far too incompetent and too inefficient to ever guarantee that those sentenced to death are in fact guilty. With one person exonerated for every ten executions in this country (and counting), a system that only executes the guilty is a far-fetched pipedream. So, let’s put a pin in the first parameter — it’s simply not possible.
The second condition is also problematic, as the “worst of the worst” is a completely subjective classification. My judgment on what constitutes the worst of the worst could vary greatly from that of the next person. And to those who lose a loved one, that crime is always the worst of the worst. There’s frankly something concerning about valuating the loss of one victim differently than that of another. Aren’t all lives created equal? I say yes, and therefore the loss of any life is equally terrible.
These theoretical problems become vividly apparent when examining the cases of those actually sentenced to death.
When the death penalty was brought back in the late 1970’s after being temporarily outlawed due to its overwhelming arbitrariness, states did their best to restructure a system that provided specific guidelines on what acts rose to the level of a capital trial. The intention was to safeguard against the pitfalls of the former system, but the modern-day system has failed to live up to those intentions.
The majority of death penalty cases come from only 2 percent of counties, and to date, all 1,490 executions since reinstatement have come from less than 16 percent of the U.S.’s over 3,000 counties. When it comes to determining what cases are tried capitally, the decision is left almost entirely up to the District Attorney. What these statistics show is that most DAs have shied away from use of the death penalty due to the amount of resources these cases consume.
So, in reality, whether or not someone is even tried capitally has a lot more to do with the county line in which their crime was committed rather than what they actually did. A person could commit identical crimes in different counties and receive vastly different sentences based on the whims of the prosecutors.
The death penalty is unquestionably subjective, and therefore it lends itself to human biases, prejudices, and stereotyping.
Mental Health America estimates that at least 20 percent of people on death row have a severe mental illness, though due to medical privacy laws there is no way to know the true number here. What we do know is that people with mental illnesses are at a severe disadvantage in the criminal justice system and are more likely to waive their rights, confess to crimes they did not commit, seek to represent themselves, and be seen as an ongoing threat by juries — despite the fact that mental illness is supposed to be a mitigating factor.
Death rows are also full of individuals who could not afford a good attorney. 73 percent of inmates on North Carolina’s death row were sentenced before the creation of indigent defense offices. 25 percent of inmates on Texas’ death row were represented by a public defender that was later disbarred or disciplined. Whether or not one can afford a good defense is one of the biggest determinates for who receives a death sentence.
Lastly, race continues to play a significant factor in who receives the death penalty. In 96 percent of states where studies have been done, patterns of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant bias were evident (or both). In California, you are three times more likely to receive a death sentence if your victim was white. In Louisiana you are 97 percent more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person. Evidence of racial bias has caused many states to do away with their death penalty, most recently Washington.
So, who really gets the death penalty? In reality, it is not the cases that many imagine. In fact, many infamous and horrendous cases have ended in a sentence other than death, including a 9/11 conspirator. The people that tend to get the death penalty are the most vulnerable among us. They frequently have long histories of abuse and trauma that went unaddressed for some time before a tragedy occurred.
There is no such thing as the worst of the worst, and if there were, our system would be nowhere close to identifying it.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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