Death Penalty: Cruel and Unusual Punishment?
For many death penalty opponents, the recently botched executions that have made the national headlines serve to highlight the fact that the death penalty is in fact cruel and usual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. The state of Arizona’s execution of Joseph Wood III on July 23 took nearly two hours, with witnesses reporting that Wood gasped and snorted over six hundred (600) times during the procedure. Mr. Wood was executed using midazolam and hyrdromorphone, the same drug protocol used in January’s botched execution of Dennis McGuire.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had stayed Joseph Wood’s execution and ordered the state to release information about the source of the lethal injection drugs and the training of those who would carry out the execution, but the stay was lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court on July 22, allowing the state to maintain secrecy.
Attorneys for Joseph Wood tried to file an emergency request to halt the execution because Joseph Wood was still awake an hour into the procedure. Dale Baich, one of Wood’s attorneys, said, “I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this. Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long.”
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer ordered a review of the execution, saying she was “concerned by the length of time” that it took. The director of the Department of Corrections said they will conduct a full review and are waiting on results of a toxicology study and autopsy.
Our nation has struggled with the question of the appropriateness of capital punishment as a criminal sanction for decades. According to the Death Penalty Information enter, there are thirty-four (34) states with the death penalty and sixteen (16) without this criminal sanction. Opponents to capital punishment assert that the criminal justice system is riddled with injustice and error under these conditions the death penalty must be halted. Some argue that there is a wealth of evidence that proves the ineffectiveness of the death penalty in achieving its states goals.
According to recent opinion polls[i], the majority of American voters (61%) prefer other criminal sanctions for murder convictions as opposed to the death penalty and some in law enforcement question its effectiveness. A 2009 poll commissioned by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) found police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among the strategies employed to reduce violent crimes[ii] and viewed it as the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money.[iii]
Opponents of the death penalty, both in the United States and around the world, assert that not only is it costly, it is also immoral, ineffective, and discriminatory. They assert that the death penalty is often used disproportionately against the poor and people of color. Human beings and systems created by humans are fallible. With that said, the risk of executing innocent persons can never be completely eliminated from the criminal justice system as evidence by the annual number of death row inmate exonerations.
How many death row inmates have been exonerated on average per year? “From 1973-1999, there was an average of 3.1 death row inmate exonerations per year. This has caused many in the legal community to assert that our criminal justice system is riddled with errors.” [iv] Annually, the number of death prisoner exonerations has increased. [v] On average, there has been an average of five (5) exonerations per year from 2000-2007.[vi]
We are reminded about the high costs associated with putting a person on death row by many members of the legal community as well as death row opponents. The costs associated with death penalty cases include but are not limited to: criminal investigation related costs; lengthy trials and appeals; and most importantly, the possible execution of an innocent person. These factors have led many states to reconsider the validity of capital punishment.
In 2009, New Mexico abolished the death penalty.[vii] This year, Illinois’ governor signed a death penalty ban into law in March.[viii] Illinois is the sixteenth state to abolish the death penalty.[ix] In addition to ending capital punishment, Illinois’ governor also commuted the sentences of the fifteen (15) inmates on death row in that state[x]. Instead of death sentences, the inmates will serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.[xi] Illinois’ ban on executions took effect on July 1, 2011.[xii]
According to the Bureau of Prisons, there are fifty-seven (57) people on death role in the federal penal system[xiii]. There are thousands more on death row in state prisons across the country[xiv]. Eighty percent of all executions occur in the southern portion of the United States[xv]. One of the most highly discussed death penalty cases in recent history is that of Troy Anthony Davis[xvi] in Savannah, Georgia. For more than a decade, this capital punishment case captured the attention of countless people not only in the United States (e.g. President Carter, former Congressman Bob Barr) but also people all around the world (e.g. The Pope and Nobel Prize winner cleric Desmund Tutu).
For persons opposed to capital punishment or those seeking a moratorium, the Davis case undergirds their assertion that wrongful convictions occur and the death penalty must be halted at a minimum until the errors which occur in the criminal justice system have been remedied. Opponents to the death penalty assert that not only do wrongful convictions occur in this country but also innocent people have been sentenced to die[xvii] and some have been executed. With that said, should the death penalty be abolished nationwide?
The number of death row prisoner exonerations which occur on an annual basis as well as high profile death penalty cases such as Troy Davis where there is no physical evidence linking him to the crime serve to remind us that serious questions still persist about the legitimacy of the death penalty as a criminal sanction. The topic of capital punishment often generates lively discussions about the appropriateness of government sanctioned taking of human lives. It is my hope that this series will generate thoughtful conversations about the death penalty. Toward that goal, I will examine the often controversial topic of the death penalty in the next three (3) blog posts. Specifically, I will examine: (1) a case where the defendant was found guilty of murder and he was not sentenced to death; (2) whether or not capital punishment accomplishes its stated goals; and (3) public opinions on the death penalty.
For further information concerning this pressing topic, an important resource is the Death Penalty Information Center’s website. If you are interested in working to abolish the death penalty, many resources can be found on the Amnesty International website including: petitions, fact sheets, organizing materials, as well as helpful suggestions on how to get involved and take action to end the death penalty.
Sources: The Council of the American Law Institute (ALI); Death Penalty Information Center; Politico (March 9, 2011); Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial, “Juries Know Better”, May 20, 2011; Amnesty International; NAACP; savannahnow.com/…/pope-makes-plea-spare-life-troy-davis; and the Innocence Project. Photo credit: Microsoft Clip Art.
[i] A 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners and 2009 poll commissioned by DPIC.
[ii] Death Penalty Information Center Website
[iv] As indicated on the Death Penalty Information Center website, according to the Staff Report, House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Constitutional Rights, printed in October 1993, with updates from DPIC, since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. From 1973-1999, there was an average 3.1 exonerations per year. From 2000-2007, there has been an average of 5 exonerations per year.
[vii] Death Penalty Information Center Website
[viii] Politico, March 9, 2011.
[xiii] Bureau of Prisons’ website.
[xiv] According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of January 1, 2010, there were 3,621 persons on death row in the United States.
[xv] Amnesty International
[xvi] Ibid. “Troy Davis was convicted of murdering a Georgia police officer in 1991. Nearly two decades later, Davis remains on death row — even though the case against him has fallen apart. On March 28, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Troy Davis’ appeals and set the stage for him to possibly face a fourth execution date. The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial. Since then, all but two of the state’s non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony.
Many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Troy Davis. One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony is Sylvester “Red” Coles — the principle alternative suspect, according to the defense, against whom there is new evidence implicating him as the gunman. Nine individuals have signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles.”—Amnesty International
[xvii] As indicated on the Death Penalty Information Center website, according to the Staff Report, House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Constitutional Rights, printed in October 1993, with updates from DPIC, since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. From 1973-1999, there was an average 3.1 exonerations per year. From 2000-2007, there has been an average of 5 exonerations per year.
Additional Sources: Death Penalty Information Center
Photos: Microsoft Clip Art