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Politics and Passions - Winter 1995-96

Part 19
Abolish the Death Penalty!

• The death penalty is racist.

Killers of whites are six times more likely to be executed than killers of blacks. Blacks make up 12% of the U.S. population but 40% of those on Death Row.

• The death penalty is class-biased.

"I don't know of a wealthy person ever executed in the United States"—a former warden of San Quentin prison.

• The death penalty is irrevocable.

At least 25 demonstrably innocent people have been executed in the U.S. since 1900. A further 416 demonstrably innocent people have been convicted of capital crimes.

• The death penalty is not a deterrent.

"It has not been shown that the death penalty has a deterrent effect upon potential criminal offenders"—Edward F. Hennessey, former chief justice, Massachusetts Supreme Court.

• The death penalty is a barbaric anachronism.

The U.S. is the only industrialized country that still routinely carries out executions. After the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, the death penalty was abolished almost immediately. Even South Africa ended capital punishment earlier this year.

• The death penalty is hypocritical.

American politicians denounce death-row inmates as "cold-blooded killers", but the U.S. state is responsible for much more death and violence. The U.S. government killed 200,000 Iraqis in the Gulf War and thousands more in Somalia, but no one will be tried for these crimes.

• The death penalty is not a solution.

Both Democrats and Republicans use the death penalty to prove they are "tough on crime" while supporting economic and social policies that create poverty and social deprivation. During the last presidential election, Bill Clinton executed a brain-damaged black prisoner on the eve of the Democratic Primaries and then boasted about it.

Facts About the Death Penalty


Studies have repeatedly shown that the death penalty does not deter crime any more than other punishments. Murder rates are lower in states that have abolished the death penalty.


A recent study documented over 300 cases in the U.S. since 1900 in which people sentenced to death were later found to be not guilty. Twenty-three of them were executed.


Studies by the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, and the Sacramento Bee have all found that executing a prisoner can cost up to three times as much as keeping that same person in prison for 40 years.


A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case found that in Georgia, someone who kills a white person is four times more likely to be sentenced to death than someone who kills a black person. Furthermore, because the poor lack the legal resources available to other social groups, they make up a vastly disproportionate segment of death row populations.

United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once observed: "The death penalty is no more effective a deterrent than life imprisonment…While police and law enforcement officials are the strongest advocates of capital punishment, the evidence is overwhelming that police are no safer in communities that retain the sanction than in those that have abolished it. It also is evident that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant, and the underprivileged members of society."

United States Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once argued against capital punishment, saying, "The calculated killing of a human being involves, by its very nature, an absolute denial of the executed person's humanity." Justice Brennan claimed the 8th Amendment bans "cruel and unusual punishment." Yet the 5th Amendment refers to "capital or otherwise infamous crime" and says no person "shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

This clearly implies that persons can be deprived of their right to life, but only under due process of law. Capital punishment, therefore, is constitutional, and, ultimately, the only way death penalty opponents can correct this apparent injustice is through a Constitutional Amendment.

Attacking capital punishment, the early church father Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote: "Christians are not allowed to kill, it is not permitted for the guiltless to put even the guilty to death." Zehr asks, "When the state takes a life, is it performing a function that belongs to God?"

Religious leaders throughout the world have taken a stand against capital punishment. Major Jewish organizations, Protestant denominations, and the United States Catholic Bishops Conference all oppose the death penalty.

Go on to: Part 20: Cartoon
Return to: The Next Distraction

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