Against the Death Penalty

6 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

The state of Ohio has introduced a “new” way to carry out capital punishment. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction recently announced that not only was the state resuming executions, but it is doing so with an experimental three-drug cocktail. The drugs in the mixture include midazolam (sedative), rocuronium bromide (paralyzer) and potassium chloride (to stop the heart). It is worth noting that some states like Arizona have agreed to stop using midazolam because of its role in botched executions. Too often, midazolam causes prolonged executions that fail to induce a loss of consciousness. Yet, Ohio still plans to execute death row inmate, Ronald Phillips, on January 12th by way of the midazolam-containing mixture. Pharmaceutical companies refuse to provide execution drugs for the state, thus it remains unclear how the state is obtaining the necessary substances. What remains even more uncertain is the reasoning behind the resumption of executions, considering Ohio’s troubled past with the penalty. The social imbalances evident in the use of the penalty in Ohio are found all throughout the country. Blacks are more likely to get the penalty than whites (if the victim is white), nearly all death row inmates fall below the poverty line, and the arbitrariness of who receives the penalty is shown in statewide geographical disparities. The implementation of the death penalty highlights systemic social inequities that are all too prevalent in American life– its continued usage is intolerable.

In 2007, Ohio was lambasted by an American Bar report which discovered huge faults in the state’s application of the penalty. The racial and geographic disparities were found to be alarming, and the state barely met any ABA recommendations. In Ohio, convicts are twice as likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white versus black. Nearly half of Ohio’s executions originate from only three counties: Hamilton, Summit, and Cuyahoga. Prosecutorial discretion wields tremendous influence on which convicts receive the death penalty and which do not. Hence, prosecutors in Hamilton, Summit, and Cuyahoga seek the death penalty at higher rates than other Ohio counties. The ACLU noted that “Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, had 50 people on death row at the time, but prosecutors in Franklin County had sent only 11 people to death row, even though the county’s population was 14 percent larger than Hamilton’s and had twice as many murders.”  A culminating excerpt from the ABA report reads, “It is beyond question that if Ohio is to have a death penalty, it needs to be one that is fair, accurate and provides due process to all capital defendants and those on death row. Unfortunately, this is not the case.”

The determination of who receives the death penalty is flawed in Ohio, as well as the actual procedure of executions. In 2014, the state received widespread criticism when convict Dennis McGuire took over 25 minutes to die by way of a similar exploratory drug cocktail. An account from the Equal Justice Initiative described “Dennis McGuire struggling, making guttural noises, gasping for air and choking for about 10 minutes before being declared dead after Ohio subjected him to a never-before-used two-drug execution method.” Many critics linked McGuire’s execution to torture—lethal injections were lauded for their swiftness, but Dennis McGuire’s death displayed the opposite  Since then, executions have frozen as the state battled internally over the use of the penalty. Even recently, questions have arisen over a time-honored forensic scientist’s credibility. G Michelle Yezzo, a scientist who worked with Ohio’s attorney general office for decades, is being suspected of tainting evidence to favor prosecution teams. Yezzo’s guilt could send shockwaves through Ohio’s justice system and illuminate the problematic nature of state-sponsored murder.

The state of Ohio does not only have a mired relationship with capital punishment—our country does. Since 1973, over 150 Americans on death row were found to be innocent. Some studies estimate that 1 in every 25 executed inmates are innocent. People of color are much more likely to be executed than whites. Particularly, Black Americans are given death sentences at a disproportionate rate when accused of crimes against white victims. Murderers of black males are rarely given the death penalty.  Practically all people sent to death row fall below the poverty line—usually stemming from poor citizens not being able to afford counsel who can devote considerable time to their case. Also, people who are intellectually disabled, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and a wealth of other mental diseases are regularly executed, often with little immunity. Though the execution of insane people has been outlawed since the Supreme Court decision, Ford v. Wainwright, each state formulates their own calculation on who is considered insane and who is not. Many states have allowed numerous people who are unable able to make rational, logical decisions to be placed on death row and eventually executed. These extensive inequities should undeniably question our right, as imperfect humans, to kill others.

Nonetheless, backers of the death penalty cite American framers’ acceptance of capital punishment as a constitutional check. The argument is that if the founders believed the death penalty to be cruel and unusual, why did they outwardly permit it in the early days of American society? It is noteworthy that there existed early detractors of the death penalty, including James Madison, who once wrote in a letter, “I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishments by any State willing to make it.” There are plenty of cases that display the framers’ own judgement as constitutionally invalid, predominantly involving their willingness to enslave millions of Africans and backing the systematic subjugation of women. Thus, let us not use the framers’ tolerance of the penalty as a legitimate barrier to halting the penalty. We are living in times incredibly different than our framers.

For the first time in four decades, a minority of Americans support the death penalty. Support of the penalty has decreased among all demographics. Further, the death penalty is unsanctioned under international law. In 1997, the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights approved a resolution declaring that the “abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and to the progressive development of human rights.” This is the same international law that the United States crusades for other nations to follow. Yet, our violation is in spite of an increasing amount of countries deciding to end the death penalty. Over 140 countries have prohibited the penalty, including the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and South Africa. These countries have long recognized that the death penalty is in direct violation of fundamental human rights and many wonder why the United States is still in ambivalence.

Capital punishment in America is not effectual or cost-saving. There is no evidence supporting the claim that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. When states ban the penalty there fails to be a correlating increase in crime. Conversely, in 2015, Nevada, Tennessee, Florida, and Arkansas had the highest violent crime rates in the nation, yet they all allow the death penalty to function. Furthermore, housing an inmate in a cell for life is cheaper than proceeding to give him or her the death penalty. Any validation of the death penalty on empirical reasoning is found to be weak. Plainly, the philosophical and practical arguments for the maintenance of the death penalty are ill-supported.

The path toward a more perfect union involves halting the capricious nature of capital punishment in America. It is abhorring that an American institution that decides between life and death for others is permissible to prevail with rampant bias. Our criminal justice system has allowed race, income, and county to be leading predictors of capital punishment, rather than the actual facts of a particular case.  In a country that abides by the ideals of justice, equality, and fairness—the death penalty has besmirched our moral credibility time and time again.There is no humane way to kill—state-sponsored murder is inherently inhumane. The state of Ohio must cease to continue to use citizens as test subjects in their killing experiments. No matter how it is phrased, killing others is always inextricably linked to human rights. That is essentially what the death penalty is—a human rights issue.


by Seph Brown

(Image Courtesy: AJEL on Pixabay)