Nothing is better than spending a frigid, snowy weekend inside reading a really good book. I spent this particularly cold weekend reading Just Mercy, a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Just Mercy is an incredibly powerful read, chronicling Stevenson’s own work as a lawyer and activist defending those condemned to die or spend the rest of their lives in prison. He tells powerful stories of the extreme injustice his clients face, from systemic racial bias to corruption and severe misconduct on the part of police, prosecutors and judges. While some of the stories he tells have positive outcomes, others are tragic. One such story is that of Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam veteran suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, who was executed by the state of Alabama despite several factors that should have kept him off death row - his past trauma, ineffective counsel during his trial, and especially his lack of intent to ever kill anyone. Stevenson describes in heart-wrenching detail the last hours before Richardson’s death – the extreme anguish of his family, the attitudes of the correctional officers and Stevenson’s own difficulty in saying his final good-bye.
Here at the ACLU of Maine, we have spent a lot of time lately thinking about the death penalty. Recently we heard the bad news that a state senator from Windham has introduce a bill to be considered this legislative session that would reinstate the death penalty for some crimes here in Maine. We are proud that our state abolished this cruel and inhumane practice over a century ago and we mean to keep it that way.
Capital punishment is state-sponsored, premeditated killing and an inherent violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. It is barbaric and inhumane in theory and deeply inequitable and unfair in practice. It has been proven ineffective in deterring crime, a waste of limited resources and, as it is arbitrary in its application, an irrevocable denial of due process. Like many aspects of our criminal justice system, capital punishment is also rife with error. For every nine people who have been executed, one person has been exonerated and released from death row.
Take for example the case of Jermaine Wright, released from prison last Friday after spending two decades on death row. Or the horrific case of George Stinney, executed at 14 years of age in South Carolina in 1944. A judge overturned Stinney’s conviction last December, nearly 70 years after his execution. To read more about the ACLU’s opposition to the death penalty you can read our Case Against the Death Penalty.
In his opinion in the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gregg v. Georgia, former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote (reiterating many of his points from his concurring opinion in the 1972 decision in the case of Furman v. Georgia):
“The calculated killing of a human being by the State involves, by its very nature, a denial of the executed person’s humanity … The fatal constitutional infirmity in the punishment of death is that it treats members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded…. Justice of this kind is obviously no less shocking that the crime itself, and the new “official” murder, far from offering redress for the offense committed against society adds instead a second defilement to the first.”
By abolishing the death penalty over a century ago, Mainers recognized that executions have no place in a civilized society and that a policy of state-sponsored killing is never the appropriate response.
The ACLU of Maine will be strongly opposing Senator Bill Diamond’s bill to reinstate the death penalty in Maine. If you are interested in being involved in the effort to defeat this terrible bill and end mass incarceration in Maine, join our Action Alert list to stay informed on ways in which you can join the fight.