Surprising Views on the Death Penalty

01/21/2011 04:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Surprises can be make one think. We are engaged in a war on terror in Iraq when 19 of the 20 9/11 hijackers were Saudis and none were Iraqi. American doctors used black communities in the U.S. as guinea pigs for unethical medical experiments and did the same to Guatemalans as late as 1968. Unmanned drones, designed to cause the least amount of harm to our own military, have been leaving hundreds of innocent civilians dead in so-called targeted attacks with no accountability. These developments in U.S. foreign and domestic policy should come as a surprise and make one think about justice and the politics that hinder the progress of our own judicial system. More importantly, they should make us reflect upon how this hurts us as a nation.

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens recently surprised the public by stating that he had voted the wrong way on the death penalty during his time on the Court. Though he is still principally for the death penalty, Justice Stevens now thinks that an imbalance has been created and people are executed too often. He wishes he could change his vote, but it's too late.

Justice Stevens is not the first to doubt the wisdom of his pro-death penalty vote. Justice Harry Blackmun also changed his view on the death penalty and became opposed to it late in his tenure on the bench. I met Justice Blackmun for dinner in 1986 -- before his change in view. I was Director of the USA section of Amnesty International and he was teaching abroad. The same day that we met, I attended one of Justice Blackmun's lectures. One of the students questioned him over his division between being personally against the death penalty but professionally in favor of it. This divide reminded her of the mullahs in Iran, and how they too are against the death penalty, but many people are sentenced to death regardless. The parallel was clear: in Iran they use stones while we in the United States use electricity.

Later that day, Justice Blackmun and I had supper and talked about a number of issues that we both were dealing with in human rights. At the end of our meal, Justice Blackmun said to me, "I hope you have courage, Jack." I replied, "With all due respect, I hope you will, too." Years later, when leaving the bench, Justice Blackmun stated that under the current system it is impossible to implement the death penalty fairly and therefore he would "no longer tinker in its machinery of death." Though he changed his vote, it was by then too late to help those still on death row.

In terms of partisan politics, it's usually the Republicans who favor capital punishment, so I was surprised to hear Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal profess his stance as a death penalty supporter. Around election time, a heinous crime had been committed in his home state. Politically, it seemed impossible for Senator Blumenthal to express a moral objection to the death penalty. The same thing happened when Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton personally oversaw the execution of Ricky Ray Rector in order to gain conservative support. However, Rector's case was not an average one. Rector was mentally disabled and had no idea he was being led into a death chamber. When given his last meal, Rector set aside a piece of pecan pie on his plate because he believed that he could save it for later. Both President Clinton and Senator Blumenthal's support for these executions appear politically motivated. It is an even bigger surprise to discover that President Obama also agrees with those views.

Statistics can also be surprising. Since 1976, there have been over 1,280 executions in the U.S. Currently, there are over 3,000 people waiting on death row. Historically, few are of them are women, but not as of late. Recently, Virginia executed a female inmate after nearly a century. Nearly all people on death row are poor and unable to personally afford a proper legal defense. Since the advent of DNA testing, over 260 people have been exonerated from death row. Science has proven that our system is fallible. My guess is there are even more innocent people on death row as you read this. That hurts.

We are the only Western country who still uses the death penalty. America, the self proclaimed bearer of human rights in the world, is led by two parties who believe in capital punishment, who operate that machinery of death, and who are right now attempting to kill over 3,000 of our own poorest citizens. The citizens of the world who are awaiting our step forward from the reign of Bush must be wondering what happened to the future that was promised to us? What happened to the hope? Where is the change?

Drone usage in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan has escalated far beyond that of the Bush years. Drone attacks are death penalties with a remote-controlled digital executioner. Of course, surprise is part of the plan in order to kill Al-Qaeda members, but how many are simply the wrong people? While our troops on the ground still struggle to identify the enemy on a crowded street, the risk of error by an unmanned drone can be even higher. Given the rise in the usage of the drones, is it not time to ask more questions about their usage and efficacy? Who is in the chain of decision-making? How many innocent bystanders have been killed? Who is held accountable for their deaths? How do we make reparations for our errors, if at all? Drone strikes are the death penalty in action. Maybe we should be asking these same questions to the politicians who stand by and allow the death penalty to kill our own citizens.

U.S. foreign policy reflects the values at home. The stench of death we leave in the streets of Pakistan as innocent civilians die from our military's drone attacks is the same foul odor we leave in the corridors of prison where own citizens are waiting to die or be proven innocent. They wait for whichever comes first, but death is foremost far too often. Even more pungent is the smell of politicians using the integrity of our judicial system to influence party politics. Though it seems that many succumb to such dishonorable means, there will always be the intellectual evolution of people like Justice Stevens and of other men and women who enact and enforce our laws. I just hope that someday, our elected leaders will say what they really mean before they're out of office, before it's too late for the innocent.