Wednesday, 26 March 2008
Still, candidates avoid death-penalty debate
Published Wednesday, March 26, 2008
As contenders for the presidency tailor their campaigns to address
predominately middle-class concerns — health care, the economy,
— they are giving short shrift to other issues that, though pressing,
fail to capture the attention of their primary demographic.
The rationale goes like this: If the core electorate — middle-class
America — does not care deeply about an issue, why expend the
political capital necessary to tackle it? And why risk provoking
Thus, it is of little surprise that candidates have avoided
discussing the plight of inmates on death row. Although all the
remaining major party candidates hold a position on the death penalty
— they support it — rarely do they explain why. In fact, neither
nor even mention the topic of capital
punishment on their Web sites.
Such lack of concern is troubling given the persistent problems
plaguing the death penalty in this country. Firstly, time and again
studies show that race influences the likelihood that an individual
convicted of murder will receive a death sentence. There is also
evidence suggesting that the number of wrongfully convicted
individuals on death row is alarmingly high. Since 1973, 125 have been released on account of evidence overturning
These disturbing statistics show that the death penalty consistently
falls victim to arbitrariness and discrimination. It is for these
very reasons that, in 1972, the declared existing death
penalty statutes to be unconstitutional. Although the high court
reinstituted the penalty in 1976 after states revised their statutes,
30 years later, there is little to suggest that the practice has
improved. Capital punishment — what is becoming America’s new
“peculiar” institution in the eyes of the rest of the world —
a deeply flawed practice.
Legislation in recent decades has had the effect of only exacerbating
the injustices of the death penalty. Particularly troubling has been
the impact of the Anti-Terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act
(AEDPA), a law deemed by some as a more egregious assault on than the Patriot Act. This legislation, signed into law by
, had, as one of its principal goals, shortening the
time between conviction and execution for those sentenced to death.
In order to accomplished this goal, the habeas corpus rights of was severely limited.
To be sure, the law has expedited the executions of a number of
rapists and murderers. But it has also had the effect of cutting
short the appeals process for possibly innocent individuals —
individuals such as Troy Anthony Davis.
Davis currently sits on Georgia’s death row for the murder of an off-
duty police officer. Barring an extraordinary action by the President
or the , Davis will die,
since the AEDPA prevents him from filing further appeals. Never mind
the seven out of nine witnesses recanting their testimony against
Davis since the trial, allegations of police coercion of the
witnesses and the complete of lack physical evidence tying Davis to
To say that the situation faced by Davis is common would be an
exaggeration. But with the AEDPA in place, it occurs more often than
one may think. The Davis case should have sparked — and perhaps still
can — a national debate about the unwanted consequences of federal
and state death penalty laws.
Unfortunately, the candidates have failed thus far to lead the
debate. McCain has never wavered in his support of the AEDPA, and
Clinton has made no indication that she disagrees with her husband’s
support for the law. Obama, though more ready to admit problems in
the administration of capital punishment, has offered little in the
way of substantive measures for remedying these problems on a
A case currently before the on the constitutionality of
lethal injection holds the possibility of bringing the death penalty
back into the public consciousness. It would be naive to believe,
however, that the candidates, on their own initiative, will draw
attention to a potentially explosive issue like the death penalty.
Presently, there is no electoral incentive to do so.
It is therefore important that during this campaign season we force
the candidates to refocus on the dismal reality of the death penalty.
To challenge the view that, as Obama puts it, a community needs to be
able to express “the full measure of its outrage by meting out the
ultimate punishment.” Is not the true audacity of hope rather
believing in — and fighting for — a community that does not have to
validate itself through revenge?
Ben Jones is a first-year political-science graduate student. He is a
member of the Amnesty International club at Yale.