Myriad problems with the death penalty mean that the United States falls far short of upholding the most basic protections of due process, equal protection and fair administration of justice.
Arbitrary, racially biased, and more likely to result in the execution of the poor than of the rich, the administration of capital punishment in the United States flies in the face of our most fundamental notions of justice. The death penalty poses the risk of cruel and unusual punishment. And, as illustrated by the execution of Troy Davis despite the uncertainty about his guilt, capital punishment continues to pose the risk that innocent people will be killed.
The death penalty's arbitrary and subjective nature undermines the American commitment to justice. Thirty-four states and the federal government, each with its own laws and practices, use the death penalty. Thus, people face vastly different penalties depending on where their alleged crime takes place.
For example, since capital punishment resumed in the United States in 1976, 80 percent of executions have occurred in the South. In Ohio, 25 percent of death row inmates come from a single county, although only 9 percent of the state's murders occur there. And few of us realize it is largely the prosecutor's decision to pursue the death penalty, leaving a defendant's fate to the mercy of the social pressures, beliefs and political motivations of a single person.
More than just arbitrary, the death penalty is biased. The more money a defendant has, the more likely he is to avoid a death sentence. And racial disparities are glaring in death penalty states around the country. African-Americans more likely than whites to be executed for the same crime. When the victim is white, the defendant is far more likely to be sentenced to death. A study in North Carolina, for instance, showed that a defendant was 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim was white, regardless of the defendant's race.
Lethal injection, the most common execution method in the United States, is fraught with the potential for causing cruel and unusual punishment. Too often, the mechanics of the execution do not go as planned. Administrators may be unable to find veins; lethal drugs may be given in wrong dosages or at incorrect time intervals. The use of pancuronium bromide, a paralyzing drug used to immobilize the condemned and cause cardiac arrest, means that if the person experiences severe pain, he would not be able to tell anyone or show it. Even veterinarians do not use pancuronium bromide to put animals to sleep.
There is increasing awareness of the great risk of executing innocents. Stunningly, to date nearly 140 people on death row have been exonerated. Florida leads the nation in exonerations with 23. In Illinois, which has had a total of 20 exonerations, Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000, citing the problem of innocence. Wrongful convictions result from poor legal defense, mishandling of evidence, eyewitness misidentification and racial bias. They also result from outright misconduct by police, prosecutors and forensic experts, false testimony and coerced confessions.
Most nations recognize the inherent problems and injustice in the death penalty. There is a clear international trend toward abolition, and 139 countries are abolitionist in law or in practice. No country may join the 27-member European Union unless it abolishes the death penalty.
We don't even need to explore the overwhelming evidence that capital punishment fails as a deterrent or that the cost of the death penalty to California taxpayers alone is estimated at over $100 million every year. Georgia's execution of Troy Davis is yet another reminder that capital punishment is a barbaric act, not worthy of the justice system of a great democracy.
Rosalyn Park is research director of the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights, which describes its mission as "to implement international human rights standards in order to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law." She is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.