03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Death from Cluelessness: State Killing Machines and the Penalty of Indifference

Nobody has ever shown that a lifetime in jail without parole is any less a deterrent to future crime compared with the threat of death.  As a general rule, violent crime rates in countries with no death penalty are lower than in the United States.

In supporting the death penalty, the United States is a standout in an unsavory crowd.  We associate with the likes of Sudan and Qatar rather than with Sweden and Switzerland.  Only the United States, China, Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have executed minors since 1990.  We join this lethal group willingly, with more than 60% of Americans favoring state-sponsored death.  That broad support is in part a consequence of America’s religiosity and an affinity for the wrathful God of Abraham demanding and eye for an eye. A majority of Americans believe we have a biblical mandate to kill criminals, by numbers the same majority that believes America is a Christian nation.

The death record differs considerably among the various states, with a strong correlation to religious fervor. Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Florida have carried out 75% of all executions, with Texas executing more than the other four combined.  The next five are Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas.  As are Texas and Oklahoma, all states in the second group are in the top 10 most religious (measured by polls asking respondents if religion “is an important part of your daily life”). That means that 7 of the 10 most religious states are also the country’s most prolifigate executioners.  These are the same states with the highest number of citizens claiming to be “pro life.”  Of the top 10 least religious states, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Alaska have abolished the death penalty.  Religious states kill more prisoners than the least religious.

The death penalty is supported in the United States not on the basis of facts but on assumptions, all of which are unproven.  We hear statements like “capital punishment deters murder and helps protect police” without one shred of evidence to support that conclusion.  That statement was from Charley Wilkison, a spokesman for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.  Strange how the same people who happily put people to death on untested assumptions with no supporting evidence are the same who demand a much higher level of proof on issues like climate change or environmental protection.  One would think killing another human, and fear of doing so wrongly, would be the issue requiring the highest level of conclusive evidence that the practice accrues some benefit to society.  Yet no data support the claim of deterrence. The murder rate in Texas is 5.9 per 100,000.  The murder rate in Maine is 1.7 per 100,000.  Maine abolished the death penalty way back in 1887. 

Let us take a closer look at Texas as the clear leader of the bunch, so enamored with both the death penalty and church.  In 2000, the state executed a record 40 prisoners.  That means the state killed on average a prisoner every 9 days, creating the equivalent of a state-sponsored death factory.  Texas has put 441 inmates to death since capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.  The stench of dead flesh has risen to such noxious levels that former Texas Governor Mark White has called for the state to “reconsider” the death penalty.  White concludes that the practice “no longer” deters murder, without offering any evidence it ever did or suggesting what might have changed from when he was involved with 20 executions as governor and state attorney general.

By White’s account, a murderer in the good old days would stop his knife in mid-arc fearful of being put to death if caught.  But today murders have somehow grown immune to threats of death by injection.  But the former governor’s odd conclusion about deterrence is only the appetizer to a more bizarre meal.  His cluelessness is worth exploring because his ideas are broadly representative of society’s views, hypocrisies, inconsistencies and willful blindness to the truth on this issue.  Read with awe the following statements from White (I have added the emphases): “There is a very strong case to be made for…a look at the possibility of having life without parole so we don’t look up one day and determine that we, as the State of Texas, have executed someone who in fact was innocent.”   He went on to say that the system is so unreliable that “it creates the unnecessary possibility that an innocent person would be convicted in Texas.  And I don’t think anybody in Texas wants that to happen.” 

One day, as in the future?  Really? The surrealistic implication in that statement is that Texas has not yet executed an innocent prisoner. Perhaps he has forgotten David Spence, executed in 1997.  Even the principle homicide investigator in the case believed Spence to be innocent.  A growing number of people now believe that Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongly convicted of arson and murder.  He was executed in 2004.  Current Texas Governor Rick Perry has procedurally blocked a state commission from examining the investigation and conviction.  Ruben Cantu was executed in 1993 for killing a man during a robbery.  The problem is that later independent investigations concluded that Cantu “was likely telling the truth” when proclaiming his innocence.  The key eye witness who identified Cantu recanted.  Since Willingham, Spence and Cantu are all now dead courtesy of the state, their exoneration does little good.

Former Gov. White blithely ignores the obvious fact that wrongful convictions are by no means rare in our system.  Advances in DNA testing have proved conclusively that in the last 10 years at least 180 prisoners in the United States, innocent of the crime for which they have been convicted, have been sentenced to death. Michael Blair was sent to death row for the 1993 kidnapping and killing of Ashley Estell, only to be later proven innocent by DNA. Dennis Williams and Verneal Jimerson spent 18 years on death row in Illinois for a crime they did not commit. Kirk Bloodsworth wasted nine years on death row as a child killer while the murderer roamed free. These are the "lucky" ones who were eventually freed before execution.  And White worries that “one day” Texas will execute an innocent man!  What colossal indifference to reality.

We know for a fact that innocent people have been put on death row, and that innocent people have been executed.  That is an undeniable truth.  Whether one opposes or supports the death penalty, that innocent people have been killed by the state cannot be refuted.

The penalty of death is too permanent to account for inevitable errors or willful misconduct on the part of police, judges, or prosecutors. Our justice system is rife with false eyewitness identification, fraudulent testimony, sloppy forensics and corrupt evidence gathering.  The danger of executing an innocent person is far greater than the societal benefit derived from putting a guilty prisoner to death, particularly when reasonable alternatives exist such as life in prison with no possibility of parole, so recently discovered by former Gov. White.

The rationale for imprisoning a convicted criminal is threefold: to protect society from future harm, to deter other would-be criminals, and to punish the offender. Given these societal objectives, no circumstances warrant use of the death penalty because none of the three legitimate purposes of incarceration is clearly advanced by state-sanctioned death. 

The fact of wrongful conviction should alone be enough to abolish the death penalty.  Lack of any convincing evidence that society benefits from the practice provides additional weight to opponents.  The primary claim of proponents that the death penalty deters criminals has never been substantiated; much evidence hints at the opposite conclusion.  Statistics by state comparing crime rates and executions offer no solace to those in favor of the ultimate penalty.

Carl Sagan famously said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  The claim that killing prisoners acts as a deterrent or keeps police safe is indeed extraordinary; but the claim is not supported by anything close to extraordinary evidence.

Here is what we know.  Innocent people have been executed; and the death penalty has no proven benefit to society. 

We have sacrificed our morality for so little. The death penalty diminishes us.  Just as we now look back on slavery with shame, so too will future generations judge us harshly.  Our children will wonder how we could possibly condone such barbarism.  Are we really no better than the medieval societies lingering today on the fringes of human history?  The time has come for the United States to leave behind a primitive practice more appropriate to the 16th century than the 21st; We have no business being in the same death business as China and Chad.