Executing justice: Arizona's moral dilemma
Michael J. Coyle and Eleanor Eisenberg
May. 20, 2007 12:00 AM
More than 1,000 people have been executed in the United States since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated as a constitutionally sound punishment. Since 1973, 123 death row inmates in 25 states have been exonerated.
Reasons to support the death penalty have eroded while grave concerns regarding inequity and injustice in its application have arisen. It is time for Arizonans to take stock of the actions undertaken in our name.
For many years, the death penalty was viewed as a deterrent to murder. That justification no longer carries any credibility, as most police chiefs and expert criminologists do not believe the death penalty reduces the number of homicides. In fact, studies reveal lower murder rates in states without the death penalty. For instance, New York, where the death penalty has been unconstitutional since 2004, the murder rate is 4.5 per 100,000 as opposed to Arizona's 7.5.
For every eight people executed, the death conviction of one person is overturned. Ray Krone was released from death row in Arizona after serving almost 20 years. He was the 100th person to be exonerated in the United States. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Krone is one of six innocents to be set free from Arizona's death row. Krone's exoneration resulted from DNA evidence, yet DNA evidence is available in only about 10 percent of all capital cases. We cannot be sure that other innocents are so lucky.
The question of killing innocents has led some states to eliminate the death penalty. But here in Arizona, with counties such as Pima County, where 70 percent of local death sentences have been overturned due to error, we somehow remain indifferent.
Making things even worse, arbitrariness, racism, mental illness and poverty are factors in who is charged and convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death. In the United States, though only half of murder victims are White, 80 percent of capital cases involve White victims.
In Arizona, a minority defendant is nine times as likely to receive the death penalty if the victim is White. This extreme bias (mirrored nationally) has led state governments to call for moratoriums on executions.
Arizona, however, continues to increase the number of homicides it classifies as death penalty eligible. We now hold the dubious title of "death penalty capital," overtaking Harris County, Texas, thanks to Maricopa County Andrew Thomas, whose heavy hand has overwhelmed the courts and has exposed the absence of qualified death penalty defense attorneys.
Popular opinion in Arizona does not support the death penalty. A recent poll conducted for the Arizona Death Penalty Forum indicated that only a narrow majority supports capital punishment, and even this support slips to a minority when the option for life without possibility of parole is presented.
Arizona kills by use of lethal injection. A recent medical review of dozens of executions concluded that execution drugs sometimes do not work as planned, that deaths can be slow, painful or involve suffocation while awake, and that the method probably violates bans on cruel and unusual punishment. Although 37 states in the United States have adopted lethal injection, 11 have suspended its use on evidence of such problems.
As Teresa Zimmers, a biologist who led the study, said, "You wouldn't be able to use this protocol to kill a pig at the University of Miami without more proof that it worked as intended."
In a failure of leadership, though medical ethics embodied in the Hippocratic oath clearly prohibit doctors and other health professionals from taking part in executions, the Arizona chapter of the American Medical Association has taken the morally dubious and professionally questionable position of permitting doctors to decide independently on participating in executions.
In two days, Arizona plans to kill Robert Comer. He is a "volunteer" for his own death. Comer didn't attend his own trial. He was forcibly brought to his sentencing slumped over in a wheelchair, nude except for a towel around his waist. The judge asked whether he was conscious and then sentenced him to death. One must wonder whether he has made an informed decision, making the state complicit in his own suicide - an act Arizona legally prohibits.
It is time to halt executions permanently. A majority of Arizonans now do not support capital punishment if the option of life without parole is given. There is no credible argument that the death penalty is a deterrent, and while many Americans share a false conception that victims' desire for revenge is natural and inevitable, many victims openly claim an execution not only fails to bring "closure," it traumatizes them again.
The death penalty perpetuates and sanctifies a culture of violence. In a nation ongoingly wounded by violence of all types, it is time we stop celebrating violence by ceasing state-sanctioned murder. The death penalty is not only morally wrong, it is applied in a racist fashion; it is more expensive than life in prison and it is too often mistakenly applied - a mistake that is impossible to correct.
Michael J. Coyle, Ph.D., teaches on crime and justice in the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eleanor Eisenberg is president of the Arizona Death Penalty Forum and former executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. She can be reached at email@example.com.