Yesterday, the New York Times Editorial Board wrote an excellent piece on capital punishment, asserting that any state with the death penalty has a system “warped with injustice and absurdity.”
They started with Florida where, after a judge makes a finding, a jury decides whether or not to impose a death sentence. However, unlike most criminal cases where a jury decision must be unanimous, in Florida it is majority rule which means that the decision to kill someone can essentially come down to just one person – like in the 1998 case of Timothy Lee Hurst (who also happened to be mentally disabled).
Next up is Alabama, where judges may override the decision of a jury and make the final determination as to whether to impose the death penalty. This is complicated further by the fact that judges in Alabama are elected and thus likely highly susceptible to political pressure – in fact, elected judges in Alabama have imposed a death sentence 101 times after a jury voted for life (for more on elected judges, check out this clip from John Oliver). While the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the Alabama law that allows judges to override jury decisions, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor sharply criticized the law. In her dissenting opinion she wrote that Alabama judges “appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures” and that law undermines “the sanctity of the jury’s role in our system of criminal justice.”
In Georgia, a 2013 law allows the state to hide lethal injection drug protocols behind state secrecy laws – and recently a “cloudy” solution led to the delay of the execution of Kelly Gissendaner. Similarly, Ohio and Oklahoma lawmakers have recently passed laws to conceal their lethal injection drugs, even after the horribly botched execution of Clayton Lockett in July. Texas has just announced they are down to their last dose of lethal drugs; meanwhile Utah has just brought back the firing squad.
By sanctioning state-sponsored killings, the United States has long been an outlier within the international community. However, even in the United States public sentiment is increasingly turning against the use of capital punishment. Eighteen states have now abolished the death penalty, with campaigns to repeal it active in additional five states. Meanwhile, in states like Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Utah, Oklahoma and Ohio, that continue to engage in the killing of their citizens, we hear more and more news of clandestine execution methods, drugs obtained under dubious circumstances, horribly botched executions, Supreme Court scrutiny and – in the case of Utah – just plain barbarity.
Now the Maine legislature will consider a bill to bring back the death penalty for certain crimes. Mainers, we must ask ourselves: is this really the company we want to keep?