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Are We Complicit: Putting People to Death in the Modern Age

In 2019, Alabama executed a man named Domineque Ray. Ray was convicted in 1999 of the rape and murder of a 15-year-old in Selma, Alabama. Marcus Owden, a severely mentally ill man, gave the only piece of testimonial evidence that links Ray to either Selma or the rape. To escape the death penalty himself, Owden confessed to the crime and also implicated Ray. During the trial, the prosecution argued that Owden did not have any mental impairment in any fashion even though he was registered in the Alabama Department of corrections records as schizophrenic and psychotic as early as 1994, five years before the trial took place. Ray’s lawyers finally interviewed Owden in 2017, confirming that he had prior mental health records, records that could have and should have been brought to light at trial. Ray's lawyers attempted to argue that the prosecution's premeditated suppression of valuable evidence violated Ray’s right to due process and entitled him to a new trial. While this was being argued in court, Alabama’s prosecutors successfully set Ray’s execution date. Following the Supreme Court’s refusal to re-examine the validity of the prosecutorial misconduct claim, Ray was killed by lethal injection without his Imam present in the execution chamber even though Christian chaplains were allowed to provide comfort to Christian prisoners. This story provides a face for the statistics we so often see about capital punishment. Unfortunately, the faces of Larry Swearingen, Walter Barton, Nathaniel Woods, Carlton Gary, Brian Terrell, and many others are equally appropriate. The greater criminal justice system in the United States is notoriously flawed and defined by inefficiency, cruelty, and discrimination.

Fifty-six percent of Americans still support capital punishment. Most of these Americans still believe myths that the death penalty deters crime, that it’s cheaper than alternative methods of punishment, or that the statute will only apply to the worst of the worst criminals. Every one of those assertions is categorically false. A commonly cited study by JSTOR from 2003 attempts to illustrate that each execution deters five murders, yet a thorough examination of death penalty data by the American Economic Review shows that an execution could save 21 lives or potentially cause 63 murders depending on the statistical model used to project the data. The American criminal justice system has long boasted fiscal inefficiencies. The death penalty is far more expensive than a system that defaults to life without the option of parole instead of capital punishment. This is due to the longer appeals processes that take place when a life is at stake. You are much more likely to exhaust your judicial options when the alternative is death. 

The common misconception that the death penalty only applies to the worst of the worst offenders is generally incorrect. The death penalty has been applied to many types of crimes in the US throughout its history. It has been applied to things such as homicide, rape, stealing rabbits, and marrying Jewish people. The American populace fails to understand that leaving the option for the death penalty open allows us to apply it to crimes that don't fit our notion of “heinous”. For as long as the death penalty continues to remain commonplace, power figures will continue to abuse it for personal or political gain. Only two years ago, Donald Trump attempted to push for the death penalty for drug dealers in an attempt to rally his base around the idea of “Law and Order”.

In addition to being more expensive than alternative methods of punishment, not having an impact on crime rates, and not being only applied to the worst criminals in our legal system, capital punishment is extremely discriminatory against people of color. In Washington state, for instance, black defendants are 4.5 times more likely to have the death penalty brought against them than similarly situated white defendants. Furthermore, a 2006 study by the political science department at the University of Kentucky shows that black defendants with more “stereotypically black” features were twice as likely to be given the death penalty when murdering a white person, as compared to lighter-skinned black defendants with less “stereotypically black” features. In death penalty cases, race accounts for the most influential factor in determining the prosecutor’s and jury's decision to invoke the death penalty against black defendants, even more so than factors like the involvement of sex crimes or the presence of aggravating circumstances.

In addition to race, the media seems to have an effect on prosecutors seeking the death penalty. In Texas, for instance, the Houston Chronicle’s reporting on any given case correlates with the Texas prosecutors assigned to that case seeking the death penalty. If the Chronicle reports it negatively, the prosecutors are much more likely to propose capital punishment. Conversely, positive reports in the Chronicle largely correspond to lighter sentencing proposals by state prosecutors.

It’s so easy to dehumanize the real people and disregard the real circumstances behind these cases. Our political system is rife with the opportunity to challenge the precedents and power structures that we may feel are unjust. Challenging precedent in the supreme court, voting for governors who dont support capital punishment, and advocating for policy that reduces the number of people on death row are all ways that we can create change. With our inaction in a system as unjust as the one described, can we absolve ourselves of all guilt and say we aren't complicit?