As the U.S. observes the eighty-third birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this is a perfect time to reflect on the slain civil rights leader, Nobel laureate and death penalty opponent.
Much is known of the Montgomery bus boycott that he led in the 1950s. He fought for economic justice and the plight of the poor, and supported Memphis sanitation workers before he was assassinated. And he opposed the war in Vietnam. But rarely do we hear about his position against capital punishment.
"I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included," King said. "Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."
King's words are just as relevant now in the twenty-first century, over four decades after his death.
America has reached a turning point in its application of capital punishment. Last year, Illinois abolished the death penalty over concerns of wrongful convictions and executing the innocent. This came following historic decisions to end the practice in New Mexico and New Jersey. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber recently placed a moratorium on all executions, stating that the death penalty fails "basic standards of justice."
In addition, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate voted to review the death penalty, in light of questions of racial, ethnic and gender bias, high costs, and a lack of a deterrent effect. And a ballot initiative in California this year will allow voters to give an up or down vote to state-sponsored killing.
Across the nation, the death penalty is an emerging civil rights issue. The execution of Troy Davis last September--an African-American man who was sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of a white police officer in Savannah, Georgia-- has awoken many to the inherent injustices of capital punishment. That the state could execute a man despite strong evidence of his innocence, including seven of the nine trial witnesses recanting or changing their testimony, was an indication that the death penalty has little to do with guilt or innocence.
Rather, executions in the U.S. are part of a racially-coded system of retribution. Poor people and members of racial minorities are more likely to receive a death sentence, as are those who are charged with murdering a white victim.
In North Carolina, where defendants in cases with white victims are 3.5 times more likely to receive a death sentence, the state legislature voted to repeal the state's Racial Justice Act, which Gov. Bev Perdue signed into law in 2009. The Act allows people facing a death sentence to present statistics and other evidence of racial bias in court. Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed the repeal legislation supported by prosecutors and Republican lawmakers. Civil rights groups such as the NAACP and People of Faith Against the Death Penalty fought the repeal.
State-sponsored executions are part of an American culture of violence. Perhaps it is no accident that the former Confederate states, with their history of dehumanization through slavery and segregation, and the meting out of mob justice through lynching, are among the more enthusiastic practitioners of death.
And the late Coretta Scott King--whose husband and mother-in-law both were assassinated--spoke out against the practice. "An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation," Dr. King's widow proclaimed. "Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder".
Further, the death penalty is an international human rights issue as well. The European Union, which forbids the practice among its member nations, has imposed new restrictions on the importation of anesthetics used to execute people in the U.S.
Sadly, some would dilute Dr. King's human rights message, including his "radical revolution of values," in which he urged America to begin the necessary shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. Meanwhile, the "drum major for justice, peace and righteousness" as the inscription reads on his memorial--stands on the National Mall as a reminder of his dedication to human rights, including opposition to the death penalty.
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy," King said. "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
If America truly wants to follow the teachings of Martin Luther King, we should end all executions now.
David A. Love is the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty.