Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Death Penalty and Wrongful Executions

“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are three rights guaranteed to us by our government in the Declaration of Independence. A government which swears to uphold those rights; enshrining their importance by deeming them “inalienable.” The 14th Amendment of the Unites States Constitution likewise states, “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  Yet there appears to be a double standard, or rather an incongruence between the words which built our government and the actions they employ to achieve the perceived intent of those words. If “life” is a right that we are naturally entitled to, how can our government withhold the power to remove it?

Personally I believe that “life” is a right which can never be deprived. Yet, in a purely theoretical viewpoint you can argue that an eye for an eye could potentially qualify as Justice. While I might not agree with you, I concede there may be a legitimate foundation for such a claim to stand on. However, one of the flaws I find in the “eye for an eye” theory is that the margin for error is far too great. What if you’re wrong, and what if the “due process” isn’t as infallible as we are led to believe? An eye for an eye may not be an injustice to some, but losing an eye for doing nothing is. And because there is no way to ensure that you are always correct in your evaluation and investigation, such actions should never be taken.

I’m not merely alleging the government has wrongfully deprived someone of the right to life before; it is a data-driven fact. A study conducted by Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan and Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State was analyzed by Time magazine. According to Time, “Authors of the study say that their ‘conservative estimate of the proportion of erroneous convictions’ is 4.1 percent’... This could mean that approximately 120 of the roughly 3,000 inmates on death row in America might not be guilty… ”   A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences led to startling conclusions. Newsweek, who wrote an analysis of the study, deduced, “Since 1973, 144 people on death row have been exonerated. As a percentage of all death sentences, that's just 1.6 percent. But if the innocence rate is 4.1 percent, more than twice the rate of exoneration, the study suggests what most people assumed but dreaded: An untold number of innocent people have been executed.”

A quintessential example of an innocent man being executed occurred in 2004, when Cameron Todd Willingham was killed by lethal injection for allegedly murdering his three children by means of arson. He was convicted due to forensic experts who testified that he intentionally set fire to the house. As innocenceproject.org explains, “Thirteen years later, in the days leading up to Willingham’s execution, his attorneys sent the governor and the Board of Pardon and Parole a report from Gerald Hurst , a nationally recognized arson expert, saying that Willingham’s conviction was based on erroneous forensic analysis. Documents obtained by the Innocence Project show that state officials received that report but apparently did not act on it.”  Willingham was then executed. Several months after his death, the Chicago Tribune released an investigative report which found the evidence used against Willingham to be fallacious and unfounded.

The death penalty is the outcome of Due Process, which is symbolic of the system of achieving Justice in America. According to UMBC Professor Jeffrey Davis, “Justice should be conceptualized as a process whose purpose is to reconstitute the equilibrium of human dignity and not simply as an end result.” He goes on to assert that you “can’t just look at guilty or not guilty, because you ignore its contributions to transitional justice.” The death penalty takes a process that should be continuous and makes it finite, and in doing so forever robs the 4% of individuals, such as Willingham, who are innocent on death row of the opportunity to seek their own justice. The justice system is not perfect. That is a fact. We must acknowledge that reality by banning the death penalty. Justice can be achieved in other ways, and the death penalty – which many view as the ultimate form of retribution – is only a temporary means of appeasement. Justice is a flawed process, but a process everyone is entitled to nonetheless. Murdering someone who isn’t guilty of the crimes they have been convicted deprives them of their right to life and their right to benefit from the process of Justice, but murdering someone who truly is guilty of the crimes they have been convicted for, still deprives someone of their right to life and only temporarily satisfies those who are seeking Justice in its most holistic form.

I encourage you to join the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a group which consists of 90 million Americans who explicitly believe the death penalty is wrong. Take their pledge, and use the tools on their site to keep yourself, and others, informed on this injustice.


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