Under the United States’ current judicial system, death penalty trials are being mishandled, leading to the deaths of innocent people.
Sister Helen Prejean, anti-death penalty activist and author of bestselling “Dead Man Walking,” recently released a new book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” about two men she believes were wrongly executed. In this book she asks not the controversial question of whether or not it is moral to execute a guilty person, but whether or not it is moral to execute an innocent one.
Sadly, many defendants who face the punishment of death cannot afford to hire their own lawyers, and race can heavily determine sentencing. Also, mentally retarded persons are being executed, even though it is unconstitutional. These factors, which can lead to the executions of innocents, are turning many Americans against capital punishment, and the opinion shift should be reflected in law.
According to Students Against the Death Penalty, 133 men on death row have been exonerated within the past 30 years, most often due to new evidence. Their trials were mishandled, but they were fortunate enough to have an opportunity to prove their innocence. In many cases, such an opportunity is not provided. Most inmates now on death row cannot afford to hire their own lawyer and are often provided with incompetent representation that can seal a defendant’s fate.
Minorities, in addition to possibly being unable to afford a decent lawyer, can also face racism in the courtroom. A report done by the General Accounting Office of the United States found that black defendants are almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than their white counterparts who have committed similar crimes. The odds are even greater if the crime is committed against a white victim. Whites are almost never sentenced to death, however, for crimes committed against blacks. Since October 2004, only 12 white defendants have been executed where the victim was black, but 187 black defendants have been executed when the victims were white. The odds are clearly against black defendants.
Even in cases where the defendant is truly guilty of a heinous crime, under certain circumstances he or she is still not supposed to receive the death penalty. One such circumstance is in the case of mentally retarded criminals, the execution of whom was made unconstitutional by the Atkins v. Virginia decision. Unfortunately, these executions still occur, sometimes if a lawyer fails to obtain permission for his or her defendant to undergo a psychological evaluation for trial. In other cases, mentally retarded persons, suggestible by nature, are manipulated into confessing to crimes they have not committed.
The U.S. judicial system is flawed. Trials are rife with mistakes and prejudices determine sentencing. Even if defendants who are truly guilty receive a fair trial a majority of the time, we cannot have a death penalty statute that may execute those people who have had their cases incorrectly handled. Innocent people are being executed. If a mistake is discovered once they are gone, it is too late for anything to be done. Death is forever.
The Trop v. Dulles decision called for interpretation of the Eighth Amendment provision against “cruel and unusual punishment” to reflect the “evolving standard of decency that mark[s] the progress of a maturing society.” Americans know that the death penalty makes no provision for an innocent person being convicted, and opposition is growing against this policy.
Sister Prejean wrote of two death row inmates in “The Death of Innocents.” Dobie Williams had an IQ of only 65, although this fact was not even introduced into his case, and received incompetent representation. The all-white jury convicted him, based mostly on conjecture.
Joseph O’Dell’s conviction was based solely on the testimony of an inmate who later admitted to lying for his own benefit. Both Williams and O’Dell were executed.
Innocent people are dying at the hands of our courts, and as long as the death penalty is legal in the United States they will continue to do so. The American people are beginning to see the innate flaws in the death penalty and their opinions of it are changing. The U.S. Supreme Court must recognize these changes and reflect them in law by declaring the death penalty unconstitutional.
Emilie Haertsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.