Magazine article The New Crisis

Capital Punishment: Murder Most Foul

Magazine article The New Crisis

Capital Punishment: Murder Most Foul

Article excerpt

More than any other state, Texas has routinely executed black and brown people, the poor, the mentally ill, and those too powerless and marginalized to navigate a notoriously unequal, unfair system of criminal justice. Last year, Gary Graham was executed for a crime he was accused of committing when he was 17 years old, despite extraordinary, newly discovered evidence that strongly indicated that he was innocent. Graham, who had transformed himself from a troubled teen with a criminal record into an articulate, thoughtful advocate while on death row, was dragged into the execution chamber kicking and screaming, protesting his innocence until the poisons injected into his body killed him.

It's time to stop executions in America. There are currently 3,700 people on death row in the United States, and 38 of the 50 states currently authorize capital punishment. Since the death penalty was resurrected in 1976, there have been nearly 700 executions, most of which have been in the South. Women, juveniles and the mentally ill are among the hundreds who have been shot, electrocuted, asphyxiated and injected with lethal poisons by state governments in the U.S. Most of these executions have taken place in the last 10 years as federal courts have retreated from the kind of oversight and review of death cases that existed in the early 1980s. In the first year of the new millennium, the world's "leading democracy" executed close to 100 of its residents. All of the condemned were poor; a disproportionately high number were racial minorities whose victims were white. Many of the condemned were mentally ill, some were 16 years old at the time their crimes occurred, and there is no meaningful assurance that all of the executed were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted.

Last year Columbia University released a nationwide study of capital cases which revealed that nearly two-thirds of all death sentences are reversed because the convictions or death sentences have been obtained illegally. The study cited inadequate defense lawyers, overzealous police investigations and prosecutorial misconduct as the most common problems. While prosecutors are quick to assert that the study did not prove that innocent people have been executed, can such a mistake-prone system of sentencing people to death really be defended? If 67 percent of an airline's flights crashed, would we permit that airline to continue flying? Would the airline's assertion that no one died during the crashes be a satisfactory response to its poor record?

Why so many errors in capital cases? In America it has a lot to do with money. Our system of justice treats you much better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. It is frequently said that in the United States "capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment." Many death-sentenced inmates were represented at trial by dysfunctional, incompetent lawyers or well-intentioned lawyers too poorly compensated to provide effective legal assistance. Most of the 185 people currently on Alabama's death row were represented by state-appointed attorneys whose compensation was limited by state statute to $2,000 per case for the attorney's out-of-court time.

what does that get you? It got Judy Haney nine years on Alabama's death row after a trial where her lawyer was held in contempt for being drunk during the proceedings and ordered to spend 24 hours in jail until sufficiently sober to continue. Calvin Burdine is moving ever closer to execution in Texas despite undisputed evidence that his attorney slept through most of the trial and woke only long enough to mock and disparage his client because Burdine is gay.

America's unequal system of criminal justice has resulted in men, women and teenagers being sentenced to death in trials where no defense witnesses are called, no closing arguments are made, and nothing approaching zealous advocacy is offered. …

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