In 15 days, 21 hours, and 32 minutes a man named Walter Leroy Moody, Jr. will be executed in the state of Alabama. Erick Daniel Davila of Texas will follow in 21 days, then Robert Van Hook in 3 months in my home state of Ohio. Regardless of how you morally feel about the death penalty, isn't it unnerving to put a name to the all-too-abstract, state-sanctioned form of punishment?
The issue of capital punishment has always been a major disagreement within me, and I've been thrilled with the downward spiral of its popular vote in our country. Studies show that only 55% of the U.S. still supports the death penalty. While technically still the majority, it's also the lowest number we've seen in the last 4 decades. It's progress, so I'll take it.
While I've been hopeful that this trend will continue to push capital punishment towards extinction, President Trump is making me think otherwise. His recent stance on wanting to seek capital punishment for drug dealers and traffickers is chilling. Between Trump and Jeff Sessions - our Attorney General who has always favorably pursued executions, even in cases that were riddled with prosecutorial misconduct, racial discrimination, executing the mentally ill as well as the mentally disabled - I know that they can't unilaterally make this decision without the Supreme Court's backing, yet it's harrowing to know the precedent that Sessions set while he served as Alabama's Attorney General. He fought to uphold 40 executions (and only in two years 1995-97). Forty! That is our country's civil rights enforcer.
While I don't dare claim to have the answers for what to do with this drug epidemic, I don't think harsher laws will bring change to a dying country. If the past has proven anything, it's that the criminalization of drug use has no positive effect on the drug crisis. While statistically being ineffectual for the amount of drug deaths, it has actually only escalated the amount of revenue and violence that accompanies serious drug use.
While addicts are faced with the harsh reality of death upon every use, it's a choice they continue to make because of their addiction. If the risks of drug use were the main deterrent, there would be no addicts. The problem is deeper than that. I think instead of listening to policymakers' uneducated and often simplistic "solutions,” we should listen to those who have some authority on the matter.
The Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis has made some great recommendations that include access to naloxone (the overdose-reversal medication), and what they call a harm reduction approach, which includes services that provide testing of street drugs (which could help users detect fentanyl, a component of many overdoses). They also believe that addressing the social ills that lead one to use in the first place would deter many from using. While Trump has supported health care bills that cut opioid treatments for millions, he has recently begun to recognize that this change is something desperately needed. I am hopeful that he will have follow through with these types of policy changes.
Execution should never be the form of punishment we resort to. Aside from the very conflicting morality issue that this topic elicits, let's look at this rationally. Since 1973, 156 people have been released from death row after their innocence was discovered. That's 1 exoneration to every 9 that are executed. That is an unacceptable ratio for those who cannot afford the defense and resources needed to prove their innocence. It takes, on average, 15 years to prove one's innocence once on death row even when there is very compelling evidence pointing in their favor. These are not the odds of a just system.
Then there's the issue of racial discrimination that exists within our justice system. The exact discrimination that was legally acknowledged in McCleskey vs. Kemp, where in a 5 - 4 ruling the judge agreed that there are in fact racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty, but called them "inevitable," as if this were an unchangeable and accepted fact. Let that sink in. Furthermore, the majority of inmates on death row are there for killing whites, while blacks are the demographic that actually make up the majority of the state's murder victims. Do you see where I'm going with this?
On to the method of execution. Drug Companies are not particularly known for their morality, yet are withdrawing their drugs for the use of lethal injection. While I'm sure that this points more directly at reputation than a code of ethics, they're doing the right thing. This leaves states searching countries like India for supply. It also is contributing to the gross imagination of other alternatives, such a death by nitrogen. Oklahoma, being the pioneer, and states like Ohio, and Louisiana to follow suit.
The issue of "cruel and unusual punishment" comes into play when speaking of the method of execution. No matter the means (electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection), there are far too many complications which result in suffering for 3% of those killed. From 1890 - 2010, 276 of the 8,776 people suffered during their execution. Research is linking these executions-gone-wrong as "gross incompetence of the executioner," which raises another topic - should anyone really be trained to "competently" murder another human being?
Lastly, executions are expensive - approximately $470,000 and that isn't including the average $90,000 per year on death row per inmate. The cost of the present system (with reforms to ensure a fair process) is $232.7 million dollars a year. Compare that to the $11.5 million a year if the system simply imposed a maximum penalty of a lifetime incarceration. While speaking of the cost-effectiveness of putting someone to death is completely repulsive to me, I said that I would approach this with logic.
There are times when "tougher" just isn't the right way. The types of issues that gets one into the legal system to begin with are not black and white. There are offenders who endured serious abuse, veterans who couldn't get the war out of their hearts when returning home, the mentally ill who need treatment not a prison cell, or worse, a needle. When we begin to look past the list of charges and look into the narrative of a person's life, I think it would be much harder to execute anyone in the name of "justice."
Don't get me wrong, the crimes that are eligible for capital punishment are wicked, terrible atrocities, and the victims are real and deserve justice. But who are we to take the life of a being and to potentially cut their opportunity to repent? Legally killing someone to show that murder is wrong, is simply illogical. Murder is costly (legally and illegally). It costs the executioner his peace, it sometimes costs the lives of innocent men and women, it drains state revenue, and pain and suffering for those who experience a botched execution. It's drags the victims families through decades of court hearings, postponing their healing, and creating more victims in the process (the offenders have families too right?!). I'm no economics genius, but when the cost is higher than the payout, isn't it time to think of a different solution?
Trump could end up leaving a massive legacy in the Supreme Court, especially if Justice Anthony Kennedy retires. He has been a swing vote in the court's efforts to ban the death penalty on the intellectually disabled and offenders who were under 18 when they committed their crimes. If he retires, President Trump will make a decision that could ultimately undo the dying trend of executions in this country.
Since 1996, Congress set a one-year deadline for those sent to death row to be able to appeal to federal courts. In 2014 there was an investigation that showed lawyers frequently missing those deadlines. The death penalty sentence should always make space for the rectification of any errors at any time leading up to execution. A little-known provision of that same law offered states the opportunity to push that deadline back to 6 months, and also for the courts to rule more quickly, essentially pushing death penalties through more quickly, and inevitably, with less efficiency. This provision is currently tied up in legal battle, one that will ultimately be up to Jeff Sessions to decide which path this should take. If we follow his trending trajectory, this could be horrific.
Ultimately, I know that we were created for life, and that until the day we die (naturally), we have a chance at redemption. I have read so many stories of the salvation of men on death row, the healing they have been able to give to the victims' families, and I know a powerful God who can weave healing and restoration into the ugliest of situations. So I won't stop at the kind of justice that gives what is deserved. I will fight for the kind of justice that rights and restores.
I beg you to go forward in these next few months thinking of these upcoming executions by name: Walter, Erick, Robert. Pray for them, for their souls to be redeemed, for the victims’ families to be spared of this horrible spectacle of death that truly brings no closure. Let yourself steep in their names and faces and tell me you won't think of them differently now.
My research is from:
Executing Grace by Shane Claiborne,