The Death Penalty and #OccupyWallStreet

shujaa graham

Shujaa Graham,who spent three years on death row in California for a crime he did not commit, at the 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Recently I attended the 12th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty in Austin, Texas. Participants included death penalty abolitionists, and members of Witness to Innocence — over two dozen freed death row prisoners who spent years in prison, and once faced certain execution for crimes they did not commit. The day’s events included a walk past the governor’s mansion, and a rally on the Capitol steps.

One thing that struck me about the event in Austin was the presence of Occupy Austin protestors who were present to speak and lend their support. Clearly, they get it. They understand the link between the struggle for economic justice and the fight to end the death penalty in America. Perhaps you don’t. Allow me to explain.

Both movements seek to reform an unjust, rigged system that stacks the deck against poor and working people. The Occupy movement rails against greed and corruption on Wall Street, and unprecedented wealth inequality brought about by policies of theft that transfer resources from the have nots — the 99 percent — to the have alls — the top 1 percent.

They’re angry that they must subsidize the lifestyles of the big bankers who caused our misery, as nearly 46 million are on food stamps, and almost 50 million (16 percent) are mired in poverty. And a lost generation of college graduates saddled with mortgage-sized student debt is jobless and living at home with their parents.

Meanwhile, the anti-death penalty forces would end a practice that discriminates against people of color and poor whites, those who lack high-priced lawyers and often cannot afford to buy justice.

Capital punishment operates under a pretense of justice, when in reality it represents pure vengeance and mob retribution, favoring expediency and finality over finding the real killer. Those who administer the death penalty seem to care little about evidence and actual guilt or innocence. We all witnessed this with Troy Davis in Georgia, and with other problematic capital cases, including Cameron Todd Willingham and possibly now Hank Skinner in Texas.

david loveInnocent men and women have been executed in the face of police coercion and jailhouse snitches, evidence tampering, incompetent court-appointed defense counsel, prosecutorial misconduct and racism sanctioned from the bench.

And 139 innocent people have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. We will never fully comprehend what these people experienced in their personal Hell — as they suffered for years behind bars while the state planned their murder. Many of them have told me their stories. The exoneration of these innocent victims provides no proof that the system works. Rather, many of the wrongfully convicted were freed with outside help, including dedicated lawyers, activists and journalism students, despite the best efforts of certain judges and prosecutors to block crucial exculpatory evidence and put them to death. It is a scathing indictment of the U.S. justice system.

As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said, “This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

America’s economic and justice systems thrive on winners and losers, and someone is made to pay in the end. America’s government has been sold to the highest bidder in the form of concentrated and unchecked corporate power. In the eyes of many, the political system is working for the few and against the vast majority of everyday people. Unlimited campaign finance is a scourge upon the land, operating as a legalized bribery scheme for the rich and famous. And the death penalty is part of a kangaroo court system in which poor and working class people become scapegoats for society’s ills. These scapegoats are utilized to help deflect attention from the nation’s problems, as we are all promised that their imprisonment and/or execution will make our problems disappear.

For years, the public had been sold on broken institutions that breed inequality, insensitivity and injustice. But there is ample proof that the people are no longer buying it. And the death machine — not unlike American-style capitalism with its socialized risk and privatized gain — is so inherently flawed that tweaking around the edges simply will not do.

David A. Love

Fundamentally broken, it must be scrapped and replaced. What is needed is what Dr. King called a radical revolution of values, so that this nation emphasizes human rights over property rights, and upholds people over money.

Now that is why the death penalty abolition movement has so much in common with the Occupy Wall Street folks. Both know the fix is in.

David Love


  1. Marc Chomel says

    In California. It costs 184 million dollars more a year to execute people than to put them in prison for life without parole.

    There are few instances of violence recorded upon prison inmates and guards from death row inmates, because of the high security confines that death ( like lwop ) prisoners are kept within.

    There are too many chances of executing innocent people. At least twenty five to date have been executed who were proven to be actually innocent. Not to mention those whose lives were spared and who were exonerated in the eleventh hour, like Clarence Brandley in Texas and many others.

    The system is flawed and will always be flawed. DNA has proven that. But it is not always left at the scene and thus we risk not having a second check on death verdicts that might otherwise be overturned.

    As morally egregious as their crimes are, the premeditated taking of a life by the State in times of peace is indefensible. We have no right to play God.

    Even where moral beliefs differ, the death penalty is neither necessary, viable, or justifiable.

    A veteran prosecutor.

    • Jay Levenberg says

      If you are a veteran prosecutor, you know that executing a criminal is far less costly than incarceration. You might be getting your numbers because of the huge amount of money the state has to spend fighting frivolous appeals. The cost of an excution itself is next to nothing compared to putting up these criminals in jail. And, as I said before, they are a danger in jail as well not only to the guards but the other inmates. With more DNA evidence today, there is much less of a chance an innocent person is convicted. Finally, perhaps a novel approach would be to let the convicted murderer decide if he wants to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement or be executed. You might like that better.

  2. Jay Levenberg says

    There will always be people out there that can’t stand the thought of the death penalty. It should be used rarely and basically is used rarely in this country. There are simply times when it is necessary. They could have taken Bin Laden into custody-Instead, the President ordered him killed. It was justifiable. There are many examples of criminals in this country that the taxpayers should not be required to support for a lifetime in prison. Serial killers, killers of police and firemen and those that kill more than one person in an incident seem to be the best examples. It isn’t just retribution, these people are dangerous, even in prison, they are dangerous and do not deserve life.

  3. James Perkins says

    The compassion of David Loves words is what is lacking overall in our judiciary and legislative branches from the local to the federal courts and those who are compassionate are labeled soft on crime or unpatriotic, keep pressing your claim; there are those who are listening.

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