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On a Friday evening in 1944, in a small South Carolina town, George Junius Stinney Jr. was on his way to the execution chamber with a bible tucked under his arm. Even after using the book as a booster seat, the boy—who stood just over five feet tall and weighed 95 pounds—did not fit in the electric chair. The adult-sized facemask dangled loosely on his face. At 14 years of age, this black child became the youngest person to be legally executed by an American state since the 1800s.
Recently unearthed evidence suggests that Stinney was innocent. This evidence has come 70 years too late.
The tragic, legal lynching of George Stinney, Jr., illustrates how government-sanctioned death is morally incompatible with our less-than-perfect justice system.
The advent of DNA evidence gave way to a series of exonerations for wrongful convictions, beginning in 1989. Since that time, there have been 1,408 total exonerations for wrongly convicted persons, including 106 exonerations of individuals sentenced to death. Kirk Bloodsworth was the first death-row inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States. He had been accused and convicted of a rape-murder he did not commit. Glenn Ford spent 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit before DNA evidence made him the most recent death-row inmate to be exonerated in the United States.
If there is anything to learn from these heartbreaking stories of wrongful convictions, it is that an imperfect justice system makes capital punishment impossible to justify. Those 106 exonerated death row inmates were fortunate to have had science on their side and diligent defense attorneys and judges willing to reopen their cases to find the truth. For every Bloodsworth and Ford who now walks the streets, there are untold numbers of innocent others who remain on death row—or worse, who are dead because the death penalty is still constitutional in the United States.
The death penalty is a vestige of an ugly past that says the harshest penalty is ultimately what deters crime, even though current evidence about its effectiveness as a deterrent is inconclusive at best.
Yes, the death penalty is reserved for the most serious of crimes. And yes, it takes many years for a death sentence to be carried out, after the entire appeals process has been exhausted. But that doesn’t resolve the most serious concern that government-approved death raises. Unlike a life sentence, where the opportunity for that individual to prove his or her own innocence still exists even after the last appeal, death is final. To sentence someone to death is to say that this individual no longer has the right to prove his or her innocence. For such a practice to have democratic legitimacy, the legal system must be able to determine guilt with absolute precision.
Our legal system does not fit the bill. It is too often inaccurate and unfair. Too many individuals have already been exonerated from sentences that carried capital punishment and too many people of color have been treated unequally at every step of the legal process for us as a country to rest easy as states around the country continue to carry out executions.
The United States is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that still permits capital punishment. The 43 executions that were carried out in the U.S. in 2012 puts us in a company that is only surpassed by China, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. These are facts that should frighten us all. If we wish to consider our country the leader of the free world, then it is imperative that we reexamine our practices at home. As long as the death penalty remains constitutional in the United States, justice will remain in peril.
Dennis O. Ojogho ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.
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