The Justice Department announced last week that, after nearly two decades, it would resume executing prisoners on federal death row. The announcement ends a de-facto moratorium on the federal death penalty that has been in place since 2003. Five men are scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in December and January, with additional executions to follow, according to Attorney General William Barr.
This announcement comes at a time when public support for the death penalty is at an all-time low. States can decide whether to invoke capital punishment for people convicted of certain crimes in their state; in recent years, the number of executions has shrunk and a growing number of states – now 21 plus the District of Columbia – have abolished the death penalty, with four more states holding a moratorium. Since the last federal execution in 2003, 9 states – including New Hampshire just this year – have ended the practice.
However, the federal government can seek the death penalty for violations of federal law against people in any state, including those without the death penalty. In other words, though Mainers opted to abolish the capital punishment over 130 years ago, the federal death penalty can still affect Mainers.
Maine has a long history of rejecting this cruel and inhumane practice, and was the third state to end capital punishment – the Maine legislature first abolished the death penalty in 1876, before reestablishing it for murder in 1883, and finally abolishing it for the second time in 1887 after a botched execution two years earlier.
We are proud that Maine ended this callous practice over a century ago. The ACLU, and many others, argue that the death penalty violates the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment and that it ignores Constitutional guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Capital punishment is state-sponsored, premeditated killing that violates civil liberties and the fundamental values of our democracy.
The death penalty system is also applied unfairly and arbitrarily. Contrary to popular belief, the death penalty is not about the severity of the crime, but rather it is largely dependent on how much money the defendant has, the skill of the attorney, the race of the victim, and where the crime took place. Across the country, people of color are more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white. The death penalty also wastes resources and has no public safety benefit. It has not been proven to deter crime, and murder rates are lower in states without the death penalty than in those with it.
And all too often, mistakes are made and innocent people are sentenced to death. Nationally, for every nine people executed, one is exonerated and released from death row. Since 1973, more than 160 people in 26 states have been released from death row because they were innocent. It’s impossible to say how many others weren’t able to prove their innocence before being executed.
Over a century ago, Mainers realized that the death penalty is an unfair and unjust practice. It’s time for the rest of the country – and the federal government – to catch up.