Who Gets the Death Penalty?

The Chicago Tribune has a great editorial today on why the death penalty should be abolished. The chief reasons:

  • Arbitrary decisions as to whom it's applied
  • Racial disparity in its application
  • The increasing number of wrongfully convicted inmates, as revealed by DNA tests conducted after their trials

Who gets a sentence of life and who gets death is often a matter of random luck, of politics, of geography, even a matter of racism. Mistakes can occur at every level of the process.


The system is arbitrary, and the system just plain gets it wrong. In the three decades since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., more than 120 people have been released from Death Row after evidence was presented that undermined the case against them. In that time Illinois has executed 12 people--and freed 18 from Death Row.

The paper rightfully taps itself on the back for its groundbreaking exposition of the problems with the death penalty. Reporters like Maurice Possley, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong have done an outstanding job.

Public opinion is gradually changing on the death penalty.

In a May 2006 poll, two-thirds of Americans said they supported capital punishment. But there was a significant shift when they were asked what was the best penalty for murder. On that question, 47 percent chose the death penalty and 48 percent chose life in prison without possibility of parole.

The most compelling evidence of a shift in public sentiment is that the number of death sentences handed out by judges and juries has plunged. There were 315 death sentences in 1995, but just 128 in 2005 and 102 in 2006. The number of executions has dropped nearly in half in the last eight years.

There's lots more in this editorial. I urge you all to read it. The conclusion:

The evidence of mistakes, the evidence of arbitrary decisions, the sobering knowledge that government can't provide certainty that the innocent will not be put to death--all that prompts this call for an end to capital punishment. It is time to stop killing in the people's name.

And then think, where do we go from here? The answer in my opinion is to switch to a system where the worst of the worst can get life without the possibility of parole. And where those who committed murders as teens can become eligible for parole after serving a period of years.

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    There's another reason... (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by David at Kmareka on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 09:13:53 PM EST
    The Tribune editorial was, indeed, well articulated and presented a thoroughly logical argument for putting an end to capital punishment.  (Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Jeralyn.)  However, the author(s) neglected to cite what, for many people, is one of the most compelling reasons to cease this barbaric practice.  It is immoral.  It is premeditated murder, regardless of how much the state has gussied it up or sought to make it humane.  And it is doubly immoral at this juncture in our nation's history, when there is such a wealth of evidence that amply demonstrates how arbitrary, unfair, costly, and prone to error the sentence is.  What rational reason remains to continue this brutal practice?

    Some excellent points (none / 0) (#1)
    by HK on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 03:18:19 PM EST
    in this editorial.  Some may think that with new technology, DNA evidence will make the system fairer.  This is simply not so.  DNA evidence has its limits.  For example, it cannot always counter faulty witness testimony, which is a big problem in death penalty cases.  Human beings have by their nature like to say what they think their audience wants to hear; in a police station (and in a court room) the situation is likely to make witnesses put any nagging doubts to the back of their mind.  And, of course, an extra problem is created when co-defendents testify in capital cases - they have a compelling vested interest, after all.

    Furthermore, there are just so many cases in which the death penalty is inappropriate and unfair, morals aside.  I was saddened earlier this month by the execution of Joseph Nichols in Texas.  The case, in brief, went like this:  Willie Ray Williams and Joseph Nichols (both black) planned to rob a store.  Claude Schaffer (white) worked at that store and during the robbery, Williams shot him.  Schaffer was killed with a single bullet.  The prosecution sought the death penalty for both Williams and Nichols, but claimed at the first trial that Williams was the triggerman.  Williams confessed to this and witnesses supported this version of events.  Williams was sentenced to death, but the jury could not reach a decision about Nichols.  So the prosecution instigated a second trial in which they claimed that Nichols was the triggerman, following which Nichols was sentenced to death.  Williams was already executed some years ago for firing the single bullet that killed Claude Schaffer; two weeks ago, Texas executed Nichols for firing the same bullet.

    There is more information about Joseph Nichols here and here

    To me, this is far beyond a reasonably acceptable level of error from a justice system, regardless of the punishment.  When that punishment is death, cases like this bring shame and tragedy to the justice system that allows such inconsistencies to stand.

    Sorry (none / 0) (#2)
    by HK on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 03:32:47 PM EST
    That second link is wrong - it is not about Joseph Nichols but rather about Charles Anthony Nealy who was executed last week - Texas has such a conveyor belt going it is difficult to keep up. My apologies.

    I can't find the link I was looking for, but the first one above is to Amnesty International and gives good back ground, including a mention of how a federal judge ruled that the State had presented false evidence in claiming in one trial the gunman was Williams and in another that the gunman was Nichols, but his decision was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The federal judge had ruled that "Williams and Nichols cannot both be guilty of firing the same bullet because physics will not permit it".

    prisons (none / 0) (#3)
    by medleysoul on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 05:42:48 PM EST
    I think they should end the penalty immediately and give death as an option to people who don't want to spend the rest of their lives in a supermax prison threatened with rapes, stabbings, and beatings nastier than what most of them have done in the first place.  In California they actually racially segregate prisoners in the some of the holding facilities. I had a friend who was caught for a non-violent crime while he was driving up north so they sent him to a supermax prison in LA for four months and he said he saw some pretty nasty things including a riot and a beating.

    My mom used to work with prison nurses and she said they treat the prisoners like crap.  The Governor doesn't care. Arnold vetoed a law (SB 698) that would have allowed media access to specifically requested prisoners instead of just facity tours. Arnold vetoed it saying, "it is important to avoid treating inmates as celebrities."

    Oh, really??? (none / 0) (#8)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 08:09:06 PM EST
    and beatings nastier than what most of them have done in the first place

    I'm not a big death penalty fan, and would reserve it for killings of prison workers, torture/rape, etc. in which there is no doubt...

    But you have no way of proving that statement, and it only gives ammunition to the pro death camp.


    Ok, but it doesn't change the point (none / 0) (#10)
    by medleysoul on Mon Mar 26, 2007 at 08:35:37 PM EST
    I don't know whether more than 50% of the prisoners who are assaulted in prison have or haven't done something worse than what is done to them. The point is that being assaulted in prison is immoral 100% of the time. I'm not even saying I approve of life sentences.  But if someone is sentenced to life in prison, I think they should be given the OPTION of ending their life and BANNING the ability of judges to REQUIRE the death sentence. That is because prisoners are not pieces of property that can be forced to live against their will (like how Rumsfeld likes to forcefeed guantanamo prisoners). I think your statement about killing prison workers could be used as more damaging ammunition.  

    I completely agree (none / 0) (#4)
    by heg on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 06:05:10 PM EST
    The Tribune editorial makes the most salient point: The justice system is riddled with far too many errors, political maneuverings, and deeply subjective judgements to validate the decision to take another person's life. And the Justice Department scandal with Gonzales and the U.S. attorneys only lends more credence to this fact.

    Furthermore, in my personal opinion, who are we to play God? I have no right to take anyone else's life, and "an eye for an eye" isn't the way I live my life.

    I agree with Trib: If you want to punish the worst of the worst, imprison them in extreme solitary confinement and let them wither away--look what happened to Jose Padilla when the government stashed him away under those solitary conditions. When virtually every other first-world industralized nation has done away with the death penalty--and currently have far lower crime rates than the U.S.--you have to wonder how we can call ourselves an enlightened democracy. But it won't happen as long as the "shoot first, ask later" gang is in Washington....

    Forgiveness trumps all (none / 0) (#5)
    by caliberal on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 06:17:50 PM EST
    When I was in my early twenties, many years ago, I worked at a college bookstore, I became friends with many students and one of them was a handsome, soft spoken man, a kind man, one who marched for peace.

    In that college town there was a traditional celebration at the end of the school year for those who were about to graduate.  The college was known as one of the top five party schools in the country so drugs and alcohol were always in abundance.

    The soft spoken man had become a friend to me and my young son, he took him fishing, he would play his guitar and sing to us at barbeques, he often tucked my young son in.  He had a good soul and a kind heart.

    Something went horribly wrong at the end of the year celebration, my group of friends and I lost track of him, we were all so drunk and high on some form of psychodelic we barely knew who were much less anyone else.

    We stumbled home and in the morning we got a phone call that our friend had been arrested and charged with rape and murder.  He didn't ask for a lawyer, he confessed, he never claimed to be innocent.

    He hung himself in prison.  No one came to claim his body, he had no family but us.  He would have been put in the ground in an umarked pine box in an unmarked grave.  Some of our parents had met him, they donated the money to have him buried in the cemetary with a headstone.

    At the service when we were all speaking or throwing flowers on top of the lowered casket a woman none of us knew walked up to the grave, she placed a yellow rose on the coffin and then turned to walk away.

    We learned a couple of days later that she was the mother of the young girl who had been raped and murdered.  She had tried to get in to see our friend to tell him she forgave him and if the death penalty was put on the table she would speak for him, she said the killing must end, the violence against one another must end.

    Over three decades later I've moved back to that college town.  My son, who was five at the time, and I recently went to visit our friend's grave, we placed a yellow rose on top.  I said a few words to him and then my son did, he told him he loved him, that he was like a father to him then, that he took him to concerts and spread a blanket out, he told him about the music there were going to hear, and when one of the bands came on and was Country Joe and the Fish, my son had told him he'd never been fishing.  

    A couple days later our friend showed up at the door, he had bought fishing poles and reels, he had learned how to bait the hook and cast the line, as my son was telling the story the day we went to his grave, we told him we didn't remember if they caught any fish that day but my son had never forgotten the love he had for the man who filled the shoes of the father he never had and as his mother I told him I would always love him as well, that my son had learned way back then, that forgiveness is possible, that forgiveness is indeed one of the keys to life.

    Here's hoping (none / 0) (#6)
    by Al on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 06:30:26 PM EST
    the tide is finally turning against the death penalty.

    But there's a caveat. If the alternative is to put someone away for the rest of their lives without paroled, a tremendous punishment, then there still has to be certainty that the wrong person has not been convicted. Not killing them is not enough.

    lightning still strikes (none / 0) (#7)
    by lawstudent on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 06:53:58 PM EST
    There was an article addressing this exact topic in a law review last year.  The author even created his own extensive formula for documenting who gets the death penalty, when, and why.  His conclusion was that it strikes like lightning...randomly...


    The appendix contains all the statistical analysis with the author's formula.