As we hear more and more outrageous stories about wrongly convicted people spending decades in prison, support for the death penalty weakens. According to The Innocence Project, 341 prisoners have been exonerated through DNA evidence in the last 25 years. And these are the ones who are lucky enough to have an organization with resources to investigate their cases. It’s impossible to know how many innocent people are still in prison or have been executed already. As the immense flaws of our criminal justice system have been laid bare, it’s clear that the risk of executing an innocent person is far too high to justify continuing to mete out this brutal punishment. When I spent time calling voters in an effort to eliminate the death penalty in California, the potential that innocent people may be on death row was one of the most compelling reasons people felt it was time to eliminate the practice. Sadly we didn’t succeed, but the general trend is moving, though far too slowly, in the direction of abolition.
But opposing the death penalty doesn’t just mean working to prevent the executions of victims of a racist, classist criminal justice system. It means that we resist the urge for vengeance when a person has committed even a crime that is heinous and embodies the worst hatred and cruelty on display in this country.
Clint Smith writes in The New Yorker about progressive opponents of the death penalty who want to make an exception for Dylann Roof, who perpetrated a brutal and racist attack against members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.
Those who support the death penalty are accepting a practice that is both ineffective and fundamentally flawed. It means supporting a system that not infrequently kills those with serious mental illness. It means supporting a system in which an execution is far more likely to take place when the convicted murder is black and the victim is white, than it is when the victim is black and the killer is white. It means supporting a system that has sentenced, and continues to sentence, innocent people to death. In our impulse to rid the world of those we find reprehensible, we forget that we are also ridding the world of those who have done nothing wrong.
Additionally, to call Roof uniquely evil, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has also pointed out, is to ignore the history that made him possible. Roof is not a historical anomaly as much as a representation of a past that America prefers to sweep under its rug rather than commit to cleaning up. When Roof told Tywanza Sanders, one of the victims in the church, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go,” he was echoing a vast history that has used such rationale to decimate black lives. Killing Roof does nothing other than soothe the moral conscience of a country that would rather not reckon with the forces that created and cultivated his ideology.
Smith talks about reading the last words of executed prisoners in Texas and how the death penalty “not only takes away the life of the person strapped to the table—it takes away a little bit of the humanity in each of us.” I recently finished the remarkable book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama and works to free wrongly convicted prisoners. The stories in the book are a powerful rebuke to anyone who would claim our justice system is reliable and unbiased. But it also reminds us just how executions strip away that humanity from all of us. People may want to imagine a sterile, quiet end to a troubled life, but the reality is using unapproved drug cocktails, struggling to find a vein, or frying someone in an electric chair for several minutes and realizing they are still alive. None of these things lessen the pain of loves ones or bring victims back to life. But they do implicate us in an inhumane act that contradicts our best instincts as human beings.
It is easy not to support the death penalty when there is doubt about the culpability of the person sitting in the chair; it is harder to sustain such principles when the crime of the accused is morally indefensible. But if our principles are only our principles when it is convenient for us, when they align with our visceral emotional responses, then they are, in fact, not principles at all. What’s the point of having progressive principles if they can’t contain your rage?
We must face the full picture of what opposition to the death penalty means and embrace it as the only compassionate, just way forward. As Stevenson writes in his book, “The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent–strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.”