The Criminal Fallibility of the Death Penalty

Where do you stand on the death penalty? Many people have very strong opinions about it, and it can be a controversial topic of conversation. I am a long-time opponent of the death penalty, for theological reasons; and, while many people do still support the death penalty, in the United States, opposition is growing.

I’m thinking about the death penalty now because I just read a great article in National Geographic about people who have been acquitted after it was discovered that they were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death-row. I’m sharing some information from that article here, because I think it is important to know that our justice system is flawed—just like any human institution—and therefore we don’t always get it right. To be clear, that means that not everyone on death-row “deserves it”—if you are someone who thinks about it this way.

What’s more, not only are there injustices in the system itself, but individuals who have power in the system do not always act out of the best and most ethical motivations; they, too, are human, and therefore flawed. And when the consequences of a mistake are so very grave—the taking of an innocent life—the death penalty seems like a risk that we, as a society, simply cannot afford.  

So, I think it is important information to know the truth about death penalty convictions, particularly as we are having more widespread conversations about the tragic consequences of the deep institutional racism that permeates the United States and its social/political/economic, etc. systems. 

Let’s start with numbers:

  • In 1996, 78% of people in the US supported the death penalty; by 2018, that number had dropped to 54%
  • African-Americans make up more than 41% of death-row inmates, but only 13.4% of the US population
  • 2,133 cumulative years have been taken from those wrongly convicted
  • During the past 5 years, 182 former death-row have been exonerated—two out of three of those cases involve official misconduct, including committing perjury and concealing evidence
  • More than 70% of all countries have rejected capital punishment
  • The United States is 5th on the list of countries who have performed executions, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt
  • Currently, 22 states have abolished the death penalty; today there are prisoners still on death-row in 28 states [and in federal and military facilities].

Let’s end with names:

  • Perry Cobb spent seven years on death-row; he was exonerated in 1987
  • Damon Thibodeaux spent fifteen years on death-row; he was exonerated in 2012
  • Sabrina Smith spent five years in prison (half on death-row); she was exonerated in 1995.
  • Kwame Ajamu spent twenty-seven years in prison (two on death-row); he was exonerated in 2014.

The reality is that the US justice system can be “criminally fallible,” particularly in capital cases; every innocent person sentenced to die witnesses to the grave costs of this fallibility.

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