Thursday, April 17, 2008

Institutionalized death is not cruel and unusual

On April 16th the Supreme Court ruled that the most common form of lethal injection could not be considered cruel and unusual punishment, despite the claim that it causes unnecessary pain to the individual being executed. There is once again heightened urgency to push for fairness in the criminal justice system.
There has been a de facto moratorium on executions in the U.S. while states waited for the court’s decision in this case. Today’s decision means that the chances of an innocent person being executed are once again very real, as executions will likely resume immediately. One Innocence Project client on death row, Tommy Arthur in Alabama, was scheduled for execution before challenges to lethal injection led to a delay in the execution date. Will Alabama Gov. Bob Riley grant him the DNA testing that could prove his innocence before allowing him to be executed? Learn more about Arthur’s case here and send an email to Riley here.

The vote was 7-2. Justice John Paul Stevens voted with the majority but he wrote in his opinion that “the time for a dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces has surely arrived." He also cites the possibility of executing innocent people as something to be considered when taking further action on the death penalty.

In my opinion, the possibility of executing an innocent person is the only thing that really needs to be considered when asking if the death penalty should be allowed to remain as part of our criminal justice system. The system is and will always be set up by humans and will therefore be flawed and subject to mistakes. Innocent people will be convicted (though hopefully by a much smaller margin as time goes on) no matter what kind of reforms we succeed in making. While the damage that incarceration can do to a person is permanent, they at least still have their life and their liberty can be reinstated once they are exonerated.

Jill at Feministe had this to say about the ruling:
What the hell kind of country are we living in when we not only allow the state the right to execute criminals — something done in only a handful of other states with abhorrent human rights recorders, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen — but when we can’t even be bothered to make sure that our methods of execution are as humane as possible? Who are we when our standard for killing our own citizens is that the way we kill them simply cannot pose an “objectively intolerable risk of harm”?

This is sick and shameful.

Not only did the Supreme Court vote to uphold the death penalty, it is now hearing arguments on whether or not to expand the death penalty to sexual abuse cases. Make no mistake, if someone touched my child or murdered someone I cared about, I feel confident I would kill them if given the chance. I don't pretend to truly understand that kind of pain. Unfortunately, with the inherent flaws of our system there is no concrete way to know that the right person is being punished. The death penalty is not only intrinsically a moral failure, but it is also handed out disproportionately to poor defendants and defendants of color. It's time to stand up and say no to this barbaric vestige of our past.

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