Glenn Ford is living proof of just how flawed our justice system truly is. We are moved that Mr. Ford, an African-American man convicted by an all-white jury, will be able to leave death row a survivor.
That’s Amnesty International USA’s Thenjiwe Tameika McHarris, in a statement on the release of Glenn Ford yesterday after nearly 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Apart from the obvious problem of innocence highlighted by this case, the death penalty more generally is racist, arbitrary, unfair, immoral, and a violation of human rights. It is bad public policy and ought to be abolished in the states that have, to this point, stubbornly maintained it on the misguided belief that vengeance and justice are the same thing.
I’m not sure the death penalty has really been on the national radar since the execution of Troy Davis back in 2011, but I’m pleased to see CNN producing a show on the topic. My hope is that it sparks a conversation about the many ways in which the death penalty is a miserable failure and why our society is better off without it.
Judging from the comments [don’t read the comments!] on the stories on CNN’s website right now, though, I think death penalty opponents are going to need more than an hour-long CNN special report because people who love the death penalty don’t really know much about it, but they definitely know they love it when someone gets executed and they don’t much care about anything beyond that.
Almost 70 years ago, South Carolina electrocuted 14-year-old George Stinney, the youngest person to be executed by an American state since the 1800s. Family members today say he’s innocent, and while they can’t bring him back, they want his name cleared.
A black teen in the Jim Crow South, Stinney was accused of murdering two white girls, ages 7 and 11, as they hunted for wildflowers in Alcolu, about 50 miles southeast of Columbia.
Stinney, according to police, confessed to the crime. No witness or evidence that might vindicate him was presented during a trial that was over in fewer than three hours. An all-white jury convicted him in a flash, 10 minutes, and he was sentenced to “be electrocuted, until your body be dead in accordance with law. And may God have mercy on your soul,” court documents say.
Fewer than three months after the girls’ deaths, Stinney was escorted to an electric chair at a Columbia penitentiary, built for much larger defendants. The chair’s straps were loose on Stinney’s 5-foot-1-inch, 95-pound frame, and books were placed on the seat so he would fit in the chair.
On its website, CNN is asking: “Was execution of boy, 14, justice?”
This seemed to me like such an unbelievably ridiculous question for so many reasons that I was planning to do nothing but lampoon CNN in this blog post …
But then I read the comments.
And — guess what? — plenty of people think that the confession of a 14 year old is all the evidence you need for justice to be done; that the word of a white police officer who says a black boy confessed to killing two white girls is clearly unimpeachable in the Jim Crow South; that due process clearly doesn’t matter all that much when it comes to justice; and that, even if he was guilty, executing a 14 year old somehow equates with justice.
This is what moral bankrupcy looks like:
After [Florida Governor Rick] Scott last month rescheduled the execution for Sept. 10, the date of [Attorney General Pam] Bondi’s “hometown campaign kickoff” at her South Tampa home, Bondi’s office asked that it be postponed. The new date is Oct. 1.
Scott said Monday that he did not know the reason for the request, and he declined to answer when asked whether he considers a campaign fundraiser an appropriate reason to reschedule an execution.
The focus of the article to which I’ve linked is on delaying justice. But that’s only half of the story. For people like me, who oppose the state killing its citizens (even those who commit crimes), the other half of the story is the utter and complete moral bankrupcy of telling a healthy human being that you’re going to take him out of a cage on September 10 to pump his body full of poison and then, after he’s suffered with that knowledge for a little while, tell him that you’ve changed your mind, that he’ll get to live for a few more weeks because of the AG’s previously scheduled fundraising event, and that you’ll just poison him to death on October 1 instead.
This is torture, plain and simple, and it’s inherent in our death penalty system; most of the time, of course, it happens because of legal challenges that result in last minute stays of execution. But in this case it’s being done not in a last ditch attempt to save the life of the condemned man, but to ensure that the state official who wants to kill him can also have a nice time at her fundraising party.
Louis Ruprecht highlights an unusual form of protest:
On November 2, 1984, Velma Barfield became the first woman to be executed in the U.S. since 1962, and the first to be executed in the State of North Carolina after the nationwide moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 1976. She was 52 years old.
The Barfield execution came back to life in the following spring, in the form of a letter from an eloquent if quirky citizen of the State of North Carolina; one who was opposed to the death penalty for religious reasons. He had calculated the approximate cost of executing Velma Barfield—not just the lethal injection, but the years of legal wrangling as well. According to his calculations, and given the current population of the state, exactly one cent of his own tax payment had been used to execute Velma Barfield—so he enclosed a check to the North Carolina State Tax Commissioner for 1984, in which he had withheld that suspect penny.
As you might imagine, the state took a different view, taking issue especially with this self-imposed tax break. Their point was that you do not get to pick and choose which state services you are willing to pay for, not even for religious reasons.
I didn’t know anything about this particular death penalty protest, despite living in North Carolina and publicly protesting executions there for five years years. But it’s pretty fascinating.
Incidentally, for those who are interested, the article in which the example appears is mostly about how the Catholic Church wants to be exempted from providing contraceptive coverage for its employees under the Affordable Care Act:
The question that should be asked is why the US Catholic Bishops are exerting so much energy and money and time on the matter of contraception, with no similarly public cries of outrage against the death penalty, state-sponsored torture, or the two preemptive wars in which the U.S. has involved itself for fully a decade.
The whole piece, which was actually published more than a year ago, is well worth reading; the issue of witholding a penny when you pay your taxes as a sort of conscientious objection is worth discussing.
HT: Steve Dear.
On yesterday’s episode of ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption,” Michael Wilbon casually mentioned that the death penalty doesn’t deter people from committing murder.
Right around the show’s 2 minute mark, during a discussion of whether or not Ryan Braun’s suspension will deter other baseball players from cheating, Wilbon said, “If the death penalty can’t serve as a deterrent to murder, I don’t know that there’s a real deterrent that’s applicable.”
Though I assume Wilbon’s words weren’t fully processed by his audience, and so might not have made much of a mark on them, a whole lot of people nonetheless heard those words about the death penalty and, in the context of the conversation about deterring PED use, they might reflect on how deterrence works — or doesn’t. Either way, this is a very far cry from the days when the deterrent value of the death seemed so obvious to everyone that they simply chose not to believe statistics that challenged the deterrence hypothesis.
It’s great to see a journalist challenge the deterrence myth — even if he’s a journalist who covers sports rather than criminal justice or politics.
It looks like Warren Hill might not be executed tomorrow night, though the state will likely appeal this ruling tomorrow morning.
Much of the attention in this case has focused on the issue of “mental retardation,” as Georgia requires a defendant who wants to avoid the death penalty under the Atkins v. Virginia ruling to prove that he is “mentally retarded” beyond a reasonable doubt.
This stay, however, is based on an entirely different issue: Georgia refuses to release any information that would ”reveal its methods and sources for procuring lethal-injection drugs.” I wonder why the state doesn’t want to disclose how and where it gets the drugs. Maybe it’s because the process is incredibly shady and borderline illegal?
More on Warren Hill, from last year (when he was first scheduled to be executed and received a stay because of changes to Georgia’s lethal injection protocol), and from earlier this year (when his victim’s family and several jurors from his trial rejected the idea that Hill should be executed).