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Death to the Death Penalty

By Daniel B. Holoch

Delma Banks Jr. was as good as dead on March 12, 2002, when the Supreme Court ordered a stay of execution with only a few minutes to spare. That was his 15th scheduled execution date. A black man convicted of murder in 1980 by an all-white jury, Banks appealed his death sentence on the grounds of racial bias, defense incompetence and prosecutorial misconduct. Only these last two claims were accepted for review.

But what will undoubtedly and tragically be forgotten, as the Supreme Court reviews Banks’s 1980 murder case this fall and as politicians everywhere continue to debate peripheral details of the death penalty process, is that capital punishment has lost any claim to ethical acceptability anywhere else in the Western industrialized world. Flaws such as racial bias are ultimately insignificant (in fact, whites receive the death penalty slightly more often than blacks overall, and the race of the defendant is of much less statistical relevance than that of the victim, according to research by Smith College scholars published in the summer 1994 issue of the The Public Interest). What really matters is that our government should never choose death for anyone, because that choice is uncivilized.

In fairness to proponents of death sentences, these are usually carried out by lethal injection, perhaps the most physically humane method of killing ever devised (they even rub alcohol onto your skin before inserting the needle). Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear Banks’s case comes almost exactly five years to the day after the Texas execution of Joseph Cannon, a juvenile offender, which featured collapsing veins, a long delay and a second final statement. Twenty-three other improper applications of the lethal injection (out of 680) have taken place nationally since its first use in Texas in 1982, including several in which the convict provided assistance in selecting a suitable blood vessel.

What has made the case against capital punishment so difficult to argue, however, is the policy’s utter insignificance in practical terms. As of last Tuesday’s Texas execution of Juan Chavez, only 847 convicted murderers have been put to death since the 10-year moratorium on executions was broken 26 years ago. Death is used only sparingly as a form of punishment and has a minimal effect on prison populations and state treasuries. Indifference is indeed the first natural reaction to the death of less than 1000 of the country’s most vile undesirables.

But those not ethically inclined against state-sanctioned death might turn their attention to numbers that have recently received much public notice at Harvard with the April 16 visit of former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who commuted the sentences of all 167 of his state’s death row inmates to life in prison before his term expired this year. In Ryan’s state, 13 convicts have been exonerated in the same time period that 12 others have been executed. Illinois is merely an extreme case of a more widespread calamity: since 1976, 107 people have been acquitted after spending time on death row. Clearly those 107 acquittals do not represent the entirety of death row’s innocent.

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A problem just as grave as the execution of innocents is that of executing those who should not be eligible for the same punishment as rational adults: the mentally retarded and juvenile offenders. Forty-four mentally retarded convicts have been put to death since 1976, representing 5.2 percent of all executions during that time. Only since Atkins v. Virginia last June has it been illegal to carry out such sentences. But it was only 9 hours before the execution of Texas inmate Robert Charles Ladd last Wednesday that the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay so that a lower court could examine attorneys’ claims that he is mentally retarded. Juvenile offenders are another well-represented demographic on death row, and they remain eligible for execution only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The U.S. accounts for over half of the executions of juvenile offenders worldwide. On April 3, Scott A. Hain, who murdered at 17, was put to death in Oklahoma.

These embarrassing statistics of exonerations and executions of juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded are very dangerous, however, because they detract from the real issue. The death penalty system is not one which requires improvements. It is one which demands immediate termination. Executions should be everyone’s concern—over 60 percent of them take place outside of Texas. While it may be true that only a few dozen individuals are put to death each year and most are mentally competent and committed wicked crimes as adults, it is nobody’s place to take their lives. Every other Western industrialized nation is committed to that principle; it is not the doctrine of extreme liberals. Retribution by death is part of a past civilization that our Canadian and European counterparts have wisely left behind with the second millennium (straggler Armenia abolished the death penalty as late as April 19).

Resistance to the progress of human ethics by preserving the death penalty will save very little money and no innocent lives. Instead, it will alienate our country from the others that lead the world. The time has come for our government to renounce its perverse authority to substitute death for reasonable punishment.

Daniel B. Holoch ’06, a Crimson editor, is a first-year in Grays Hall.

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