Last week, we received the unfortunately news that a Maine lawmaker is introducing legislation to reinstate the death penalty here in Maine. Democratic Senator Bill Diamond of Windham introduced the bill, which will be considered this legislative session.
Honestly, it’s difficult to know where to begin.
The United States has long drawn criticism from the international community for its use of the death penalty. Two-thirds of the world’s countries have outlawed this practice, seeing it as a violation of human rights and international law. According to Amnesty International, only four countries in the world execute more people than the United States: China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Again, when it comes to human rights, we find ourselves on a pretty scary list.
Capital punishment is state-sponsored, premeditated killing and an inherent violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against 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.
The bill in question would allow the death penalty to be introduced in certain cases where the victim is a child. But no matter how heinous the alleged crime, a policy of state authorized killing is not the right response. The death penalty has not and will not prevent crime from happening. A 2009 survey of criminologists done by the National Research Council found that 88 percent believed that the death penalty was not a deterrent for murder. The murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than that of death penalty states and, in a national poll, police from around the country ranked the death penalty as the least effective way to reduce violent crimes rates. As the Portland Press Herald wrote in their editorial opposing this bill “we can’t stop brutality by practicing it ourselves.”
In addition to being an ineffective deterrent to crime, capital punishment in the United States continues to be applied in an arbitrary, racially biased and unfair way. For instance, in southern states with capital punishment, a defendant is 11 times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white than if the victim is black. In cases where the defendant black and the victim is white, the defendant is is a whopping 22 times more likely to be sentenced to death. In other words, the race of both the perpetrator and the victim of a crime is a driving factor in whether the death penalty is utilized.
Socioeconomic disparities and the ability to afford quality counsel also contrbute to the application of the death penalty: approximately 90 percent of people on death row could not afford their own lawyer.
As our legal director, Zach Heiden, put it:
Decisions about who lives and who dies in capital cases are largely dependent on how much money the defendant has, the skill of their attorneys, the race of the victim and where the crime took place, not how terrible the crime was or how worthy of punishment the defendant is.
And, as in all parts of our criminal justice system, capital punishment is rife with error. For every nine people who have been executed, one person has been exonerated and released from death row. I think that one bears repeating: when it comes to the death sentences, we have a 10 percent error rate. One in 10 people sentenced to die is actually innocent. For those not fortunate enough to be exonerated prior to their execution, the punishment is permanent and irreversible.
Capital punishment has become so repulsive as a concept that even pharmaceutical companies want nothing to do with it anymore. With these companies running in the opposite direction, it has become harder and harder for states to secure the drugs needed to execute someone - although some still try. Experiments with new lethal cocktails resulted in four botched executions last year - more than 10 percent of the 35 total executions performed.
Anti-death penalty activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson gave a recent Ted Talk about injustice in our criminal justice system, which I highly recommend. When addressing the issue of the death penalty he said:
It's interesting, this question of the death penalty. In many ways, we've been taught to think that the real question is, do people deserve to die for the crimes they've committed? And that's a very sensible question. But there's another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?
We believe the answer is unequivocally no.
Maine closed this dark chapter in its history when it outlawed the death penalty over a century ago. Let’s keep it that way.