By David A. Love
Story updated at 10:46 PM on Sunday, July 1, 2007
It's been 35 years since the Supreme Court's watershed death penalty decision, yet little has changed with the disturbing use of capital punishment in America.
In the 1972 Furman v. Georgia case, the high court found in a 5-4 decision that the death penalty was arbitrarily imposed and racially biased. It also found that it was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The majority cited factors such as the poor quality of court-appointed lawyers for the accused and the risk of executing the innocent.
In the four years after Furman, 37 states enacted new death penalty laws to address the court's concerns about arbitrariness and discrimination. By 1976, the Supreme Court upheld the new statutes passed by Georgia, Florida and Texas. And by 1977, America's death machine resumed operation.
Today, more than 1,000 executions later, the death penalty still is arbitrary and unfair.
In its 1997 report calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, the American Bar Association declared that "administration of the death penalty, far from being fair and consistent, is instead a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency." In other words, it is a game of pure chance.
Each locality has its own standards, and each prosecutor decides whether to seek death. Only 2 percent of those eligible for a death sentence actually receive death. Co-defendants might receive different sentences for the same crime, with one receiving death and the other receiving jail time.
Ninety-five percent of death row prisoners can't afford an attorney and must take a court-appointed attorney, who often is overworked, underpaid or lacks experience in capital cases.
The most important factor that determines whether someone will get the death penalty is the race of the victim. Over the past 30 years, an overwhelming majority of people executed in the United States - more than 80 percent - were convicted of killing a white victim, according to Amnesty International.
Blacks, however, are about half of all murder victims. And one-third of America's death row inmates is black.
Since 1973, 124 people have been released from death row because they were wrongfully convicted, according to Amnesty International and the Death Penalty Information Center. In January 2000, then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions after 13 death row prisoners were found to have been wrongfully convicted in the state since 1977, while 12 others were executed.
The death penalty offends international sensibilities and violates human rights law. Since the United States resumed executions, 70 countries have abolished the death penalty, for a total of 128 nations that have repudiated killing by the state.
Most of all, the death penalty isn't the deterrent its supporters claim. The murder rate for states with the death penalty was 46 percent higher than those without in 2005, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The United States virtually stands alone in the developed world in the use of judicial executions, and it is not a brave or principled stance. As the only industrialized nation with such a hunger for death in its justice system, the nation cannot justify the barbaric practice.
One cannot fix a system that is inherently flawed. Now is the time to put the death penalty to sleep, for good.
• David A. Love is a lawyer in Philadelphia. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 070207