Recently, a letter from death row inmate Ray Jasper went viral with more than 1 million views. While some embraced his words and wisdom, others condemned his letter altogether. The Columbia Journalism Review also criticized Gawker for publishing Jasper’s letter and allowing “ a death-row inmate to whitewash the facts of his case.” However, a debate focusing solely on his words or the crime itself simply distracted most people from seeing the bigger picture.
To date, more than two-thirds of nations worldwide have abolished the death penalty either in law or practice, and today the U.S. is the only democratic Western nation that imposes death sentences on its citizens.
While some states have banned the practice, it’s likely only a matter of time before the country will be forced to abolish the death penalty nationwide, primarily due to economic pressures, but also influenced by international trends against the practice.
Paying For Death-Row But Not Death
Currently, 32 states practice the death penalty. While fewer Americans support it today than in the past, a recent survey by Pew Research Center shows that more than 50 percent still approve of the death penalty.
Common justifications for favoring the death penalty are that “the punishment fits the crime”, or that it might be cheaper than “keeping murderers in prison for life.” However, neither of these rationales should be utilized as a justification.
Take Jasper’s sentence. In 2000, after Texas convicted Jasper of robbery and capital murder, a jury of his “peers” sentenced him to death. On Wednesday, 14 years after he committed his crime, he is schedule to be put to death.
Jasper’s waiting time is not an anomaly, but rather the average time from sentence to death for most inmates. In 2014, six of the 10 people who were executed had been on death row 20 years or more; spending the majority of their time alone in cells often equivalent to “the size of an average bathroom,” and often isolated 23 hours a day without access to activities or visits.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the conditions on death row are so severe that some inmates volunteer to die while others suffer to the extent where “their mind is gone before the state ever executes them.” Consequently, the belief that punishment fits the crime bears little, if any, validity. In fact, many states end up paying more for this kind of system, than any other sentencing method.
In California, for example, the state with the most death row inmates, a study showed that since 1978, the death penalty system has cost taxpayers $4 billion more than a system that imposes life without possibility of parole. This despite the fact that only 13 of the 741 death row inmates have been executed since California reinstated capital punishment, while 36 inmates have either committed suicide or died of natural causes.
A death penalty case in Texas — the state that executes the most inmates — on average costs taxpayers nearly $2 million. Last year, Texas executed its 500th prisoner and other states such as Florida seem to believe that this is the model to adhere to.
However, Texas and Florida also have the highest exoneration rates, so speeding up the process only serves to further damage the U.S. credibility and commitment to human rights, especially in the global political arena.
The World Is Watching
The high cost of the death penalty stems not only from incarcerations, but also from costly trial proceedings and inmate appeals and petitions. Accordingly, one could make the argument that reducing time and executing more inmates would render the death penalty system more effective and less costly.
Yet, the majority of the world would disagree simply because in an imperfect system you run the risk of killing innocent citizens.
Last year, the UN urged their members to abolish the death penalty and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “we have to prevent innocent people from paying the ultimate price for miscarriages of justice: the most sensible way is to end the death penalty.” This is particularly relevant for a country whose laws are based on democratic principles and “unalienable rights” for its citizens.
Since 1973, more than 140 people have been exonerated from death row sentences in the U.S. due to wrongful convictions. Last week, Glenn Ford, who spent 30 years on Louisiana’s death row, was released in light of new evidence proving his innocence. It’s also believed that at least 10 people (six in Texas) presumed to be innocent have been executed.
Cases like Ford not only personify the intrinsic flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system, but also challenge the moral supremacy of the U.S. If American citizens cannot be protected by their own laws, how then can the country call itself a promoter of democratic principles, let alone “the leader of the free world?”
Politicians are not ignorant to the fact that the image the U.S. portrays to the world also influences their status as a world leader. Thus meeting international expectations is a somewhat of a necessity. And while the country has managed to bypass important human rights treaties until now, our technological world makes it difficult to ignore a push towards equilibrium, especially as it relates to inequalities within any legal system.
Death Penalty Is Not Colorblind
Ford, an African-American, was tried and convicted for the murder of a white man by an all-white jury (an African American had been dismissed during jury selection). This was also the scenario in Jasper’s case in which the prosecutor dismissed two African Americans during jury selection.
The existence of racial bias in jury selection has not gone unnoticed and last year justices on the Washington Supreme Court called for necessary changes. Justice Steven Gonzales pointed out “peremptory challenges are used in trial courts throughout this state, often based largely or entirely on racial stereotypes or generalizations.”
And the race of the victim has so far had a tremendous impact on whose life matters the most. Almost 80 percent of murder victims since 1976 resulting in execution were white, despite the fact that 50 percent of murder victims nationally are white.
The U.S. cannot continue to espouse a system that is costly, ineffective and tainted by racial bias. In addition, no evidence exists that the death penalty deters crimes or has any effect on homicide rates. As far back as the late 1770s, intellectuals such as Cesare Beccaria questioned the very idea of deterrence by asking “is it not absurd, that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?”
While executions are no longer held publicly, Beccaria question forces us to think about the impact the death penalty has on a society and the mindset of its people. The system not only sanctions government murder, but also means that the ‘eye for an eye’ ideology is superior to forgiveness or rehabilitation.
This is what the jury decided in Jasper’s case despite the fact that he was only 18 when he committed the crime. Currently, almost half of death row inmates are younger than 29 and to perceive them as a toxic and a “threat to society” in spite of their young age, contradicts the core tenets of a nation with strong foundational ties to religion.
The U.S is exceptional when compared to other developed countries and this holds true in terms of the death penalty. But this is not a trend that favors the country and ultimately abolishing the death penalty will no longer be a choice. Sadly, people like Jasper probably won’t be alive to witness when that day arrives.