05/05/2014 04:18 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2014

The Death Penalty Must Go


I'll never forget the moment when I watched a man take his last breath after being executed by the state of Texas. The year was 2000 and Gary Graham lost his last attempt at an appeal/clemency when he was killed before my very eyes. Then-Governor George W. Bush said the sentence should go forward as recommended, despite Graham's insistence that he did not commit murder. Continually proclaiming his innocence, he asked Rev. Jesse Jackson, actress Bianca Jagger and me to witness the execution -- and the three of us did. It's an image that I can never erase from my memory. Some of his final words were: Bianca, keep standing up. Jesse, keep standing up. And Al, keep marching. Watching him die felt inhumane, cruel and just plain wrong. I was reminded of that troubling feeling these last few days when I learned of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma. It makes me wonder, once again, why we still carry out the death penalty in the most powerful and advanced nation on earth.

According to Amnesty International, executions only occur in a small percentage of countries today. The fact that the United States is among this percentage should be disturbing to anyone who believes in the basics of a civilized society. Now, to be clear, I am not commenting on Lockett's guilt or innocence, but I am commenting on the disparity with which justice is carried out. When extensive data exists about the disproportionate manner that blacks and Latinos are profiled, stopped, questioned, frisked and arrested, how can we ever believe the system is fair? When the majority of those executed are also minorities and the poor, do we really think everyone receives equal treatment under the law? And when DNA testing has overturned many convictions, how can we be certain that those that we have executed are truly guilty? When money and status often dictate what kind of legal defense a person will receive, we cannot continue to execute inmates.

Recently questioned about Lockett's execution, President Obama stated that it was "deeply troubling." I wholeheartedly agree. Witnesses say Lockett was convulsing, moaning and even speaking on the gurney after the new lethal cocktail was administered. According to reports, officials blocked the witnesses' view and 43 minutes after the entire process began, stated that Lockett died from a massive heart attack. This should not be how we function in 2014. If there ever was a time to review capital punishment in this nation, the moment is now. We cannot create a space where such botched executions are allowed to occur.

When a majority of the world has eliminated the death penalty all together, why do we still practice it? Why do some states like Texas execute more prisoners than others? And how do we ensure that innocents are not being killed for crimes they did not commit? When the amount of money one has dictates what sort of legal protection he/she can afford, the system will always be flawed. If a person hires a top-notch attorney, chances are they will receive a reduced sentence, or they may even be acquitted. But when a person is represented by a court-appointed legal aid attorney (who is so inundated with multiple cases), do we really believe that justice will be served? Economic disparity and racial disparity greatly impact the way in which the law is applied. And that's a reality nobody can deny.

My heart goes out to all the victims of violence and crime, and the families they may leave behind. But while I pray for them, my humanity will not allow me to watch another person die -- especially when we do not know for sure that they are in fact the one who committed the crime. Until we have a full-proof justice system that treats everyone equally under the law, we cannot falsely believe that everyone executed is in fact guilty. The process itself is cruel and in one of the most modern countries on the planet, there is simply no place for it. For even when an execution goes smoothly as planned, it's one of the most vicious things you can ever witness. I know because I speak from experience.