The death penalty: Is it time for a national moratorium?


President George W. Bush’s recent commutation of convicted felon I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s jail sentence confronts the nation with a startling contrast in unequal justice. As governor of Texas, Bush refused to spare the lives of over 150 people, all impoverished and the majority of color, while as president he mercifully rescues a wealthy White colleague from his 30-month prison sentence. This and other related events around the country have inspired MSR Staff Writer Charles Hallman to take an in-depth look at why we as a nation continue to condone a form of punishment consistently applied so disproportionately by race and class.

According to Amnesty International, over 300 countries worldwide have abolished the death penalty either in law or in practice. Yet, since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, judicial killing continues in this country.

Thirty-eight U.S. states still have the death penalty. The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2006 Capital Punishment Statistics reveal that 53 persons, all males, were executed last year: 32 were White and 21 were Black.

Texas led with 24; Ohio had five, with four each in Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Virginia, and one each in Indiana, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, California, Montana and Nevada. All 53 were executed by lethal injection except for one who was electrocuted.

Minnesota is one of 12 states without the death penalty. The state legislature abolished it in 1911, six years after executioners botched the hanging of 28-year-old William Williams, who was convicted to death for murdering a 16-year-old. It took almost 15 minutes for him to die by strangulation in the Ramsey County Jail in 1906 because the executioners used a rope that was too long.

Although there have been many attempts to have it reinstated, including current Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2004 death penalty plan in response to the abduction and murder of Dru Sjodin, Minnesota lawmakers have refused to bring capital punishment back to the state.

The federal government and the military also allow the death penalty, but according to a 2000 U.S. Justice Department report on the federal death penalty system, the federal government executed only 33 defendants during the period from 1930 to 1999. During the same time period, however, the report found that state governments executed over 4,400 defendants.

Is the death penalty applied fairly among racial groups? Proponents argue that it is because there are more White inmates on death row than any other group. However, according to an Amnesty International report, Blacks account for more than 40 percent of the country’s death row inmates. Furthermore, the report surmised that at least one in five Blacks executed since 1977 has been convicted by all-White juries, and that over 300 Blacks have been executed in the United States since 1976.

“I don’t think the average person in this country has an idea of the extent to which [the U.S. justice system] is flawed and messed up,” noted Laura Moye of Amnesty International’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta, Georgia.

Hamline University Law School Professor Robin Magee said that if Minnesota currently had the death penalty, there would very likely be a disparity in how it is applied based on race. “We have the worst Black-and-White disparity in the country in sentencing and other categories in the criminal justice system,” she pointed out.

A second point that death penalty supporters usually argue is that it deters crime. Economics Professor Naci Mocan at the University of Colorado at Denver co-authored a 2003 study that concluded that each execution results in five fewer homicides, one of a dozen such studies supporting the theory that capital punishment had deterrent effects.

A 2003 nationwide study by Emory University professors claimed that each execution deters an average of 18 murders yearly. And, in the four years following the 2000 Illinois moratorium on executions, there were 150 additional homicides, a 2006 University of Houston study pointed out.

Opponents, however, argue that the death penalty has shown little or no effect on violent crime rates. “Clearly there is no proof that it has a deterrence effect,” said Professor Magee.

Third, death penalty proponents believe that execution provides justice for the victims and relief for their survivors. The victim and the brutality of the murder “is the foundation of the just nature of the death penalty,” wrote Dudley Sharp, vice-president of Justice for All, a Texas-based victims’ rights group that maintains a website (

“There is no proof that the victim’s family report that they feel any better, even after watching the killer of the loved one executed,” Magee countered. “People could get closure without a death penalty — and people do.”

Fourth, proponents maintain that the majority of Americans favor the death penalty. However, a 2006 Gallup Poll reported that 48 percent of those asked support life sentences without parole, up nine percent from the 2005 poll when 39 percent favored life sentences.

Organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations have long argued against the death penalty, and have consistently called for the United States, like other countries such as South Africa, to impose a moratorium against death sentences or abolish them altogether. “While we say we are champions of human rights around the world, we pick and choose when it comes to human rights,” noted Moye. “While we want the rest of the world to follow human rights standards, we often take exception when it is not convenient for us.”

A 2000 United Nations report expressed concern “at the discriminatory manner in which the death penalty is applied in the United States of America.” The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in April 2002 called for a death penalty moratorium worldwide, and especially in the U.S.

“The death penalty is often imposed after trials which do not conform to international standards of fairness and that persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities appear to be disproportionally subject to the death penalty,” the Commission noted.

However, U.S. President George Bush defended the U.S.’s use of the death penalty in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2002. He criticized the idea of a death penalty moratorium, adding that the death penalty provides “equal justice” for which the U.S. will “always stand firm.”

Moye said that the primary reason why the U.S. still has the death penalty is purely political: “The death penalty is very politically driven because you have elected officials, i.e. district attorneys, who determine whether or not to seek the death penalty.”

Racism and the Administration of Justice, a 2006 Human Rights Watch report, cited a 2000 U.S. Justice Department finding that 80 percent of federal defendants in capital trials were members of racial minorities, as were 74 percent of convicted defendants for whom prosecutors recommended the death penalty. In capital cases that involve a White victim, the death penalty is more likely sought and imposed than is the case for non-White victims, according to a 1990 United States General Accounting Office report on death penalty sentencing.

“In 82 percent of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered Whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered Blacks,” the report surmised.

Also, according to statistics on executions by race in the United States since 1976 complied by the Death Penalty Information Center in April, only 15 executions took place where the White defendant was convicted for murdering a Black person, whereas 214 executions were carried out where the defendant was Black and the victim was White.

The death penalty “is inherently cruel, irreversible, and partly susceptible to discrimination in its application, [and] should be abolished,” the report concluded. “If we were regularly executing people of means or White people, I don’t think the country would accept it as well as they do now,” Magee believes.

Finally, according to the Death Penalty Information Center Year End Report released in December 2006, the use of the death penalty in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest level in 10 years because many states grappled with problems with wrongful convictions and using lethal injections. Nonetheless, the death penalty still remains on the books on almost three-fourths of the states.

“Is it racially discriminatory?” Magee asked rhetorically. “Yes, abundantly so, and most people in the system understand that.”

Next week: The death penalty may be legal, but is it morally right?

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to