a few notes on the death penalty

In looking for news about Frances Newton’s case, I came across three others with similarly pressing deadlines: Thomas Bowling‘s execution has been postponed to allow two related cases to clear, Charles Walker‘s stay of execution is being appealed, and George Banks‘ execution has been halted so that his competence can be assessed.
The three cases are instructive. Bowling’s IQ has been assessed at somewhere between 74 and 87, meaning I’ve eaten salads that were smarter than this guy; part of his case hinges on a numerical cutoff for execution eligibility, since KY law bans exections of persons with IQs of or below 70. This is patently ridiculous, since neither the concept of IQ nor the methods of assessing same allow for the kind of accuracy needed to impose such a cutoff. Bowling’s (profound lack of) intelligence is at issue not only because it is generally accepted that it is wrong to execute a person incapable of understanding their crime or its consequences, but because it has direct bearing on his case: there is reason to suspect that he may have been framed, and he would certainly be a prime target for such a setup. In addition to the case to decide whether Bowling is legally retarded (enough to avoid execution), there is the question of method. KY, like 36 other states, kills by lethal injection, and along with 28 of those states it uses Pavulon (pancuronium bromide), a paralytic, in combination with — in KY’s case — sodium pentothal (anaesthetic) and potassium chloride (which causes a massive heart attack). The second of the pending cases for which Bowling’s execution has been postponed concerns the constitutionality of this method: Pavulon does not affect awareness or pain, for which reason it has been banned in animal euthanasia. There is reason to believe that a person executed by this method could suffer terrible pain but be unable to convey their status to medical staff.
Banks’ guilt is not at issue and no one is suggesting that he should be set free, but his history of mental illness was not properly taken into account by the original jury, because of faulty instructions that have since been found to be unconstitutional.
Walker, in contrast, was found guilty of murder in the absence of a body or any physical evidence of a crime. The conviction was based solely on the testimony of co-defendants, all of whom plead guilty to 2nd degree or accessory charges and are now free or eligible for parole. The case is further complicated by Walker’s mental illness, which was not adequately presented to the jury; nor were the jury given the option of life without parole, which would now be available in a similar case. Walker refused the 2nd degree plea offered him, and his counsel argue that his mental illness was a primary factor in this decision. More background on Walker here (including a letter you can send to the Governor of North Carolina) from the National Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
These three cases illustrate just some of the reasons why the death penalty is barbaric and unsupportable. There are plenty such, including: execution of juveniles and the mentally ill or otherwise incompetent; significant racial and socioeconomic bias in the application of the death penalty; prosecutorial discretion and variable state laws and standards resulting in wide geographic disparities in capital cases; life without parole being vastly cheaper for the state than the death penalty; strong evidence that the death penalty is no deterrent against serious crime; and the undisputed fact that innocent people have been executed and will continue to be executed so long as the death penalty remains a legal option.
A few facts and figures from NCADP, ACLU, HRW, DPIC and AIUSA: There are eight other pending executions in the US right now, with deadlines extending to December next year, and more than 3500 people on death row. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment by the US Supreme Court in 1976, the US has executed 944 individuals. Only 12 States and the District of Columbia do not have death penalty statutes. The UN has resolved that execution of those 18 or younger at the time of the crime is “contrary to customary international law”, but at least 20 US states still have laws allowing for the execution of offenders as young as 16. In the past five years, the US has executed 13 juvenile offenders, while the rest of the world has recorded five such killings. Only the US and Somalia have yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in addition to the US only China, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iran and Pakistan have openly executed juveniles since 2000. Although execution of persons with “substantial intellectual impairment” is now illegal in the US, some 40 retarded people were executed between 1977 and 2002. Despite international law prohibiting execution of the mentally ill, virtually universal adoption of corresponding national laws and strong agreement between these bodies of law and the US Constitution, the US continues to execute the insane, most recently Larry Robison (schizophrenia, 2000), Thomas Provenzano (delusional, 2000) and John Satterwhite (retarded and mentally ill, 2000). Although non-whites make up around a quarter of the US population, they constitute 55% of death row and represent 43% of those executed since 1976. Although whites account for 50% of murder victims, in 80% of capital cases the victim was white. More than 60% of juvenile offender death sentences since 1976 have been passed on Blacks or Latinos. Of all death row inmates, 95% cannot afford an attorney and must rely on underfunded state programs, most of which do not have meaningful competency standards. There is enormous geographic disparity and apparent arbitrariness in the death penalty: state and federal jurisdictions vary in the crimes for which the death penalty can be sought and the likelihood that prosecutors will in fact seek it, so that location is a primary determinant of an offender’s chances of facing death and the same crime is likely to receive different punishment in different courts; only about 1% of convicted murderers are executed. The death penalty is expensive, costing between $1 and $7 million per case as opposed to around $500-600,000 per case for life without parole. The death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Canada’s murder rate has dropped 40% since abolition of the death penalty in 1975, whereas the US rate was 6.2/100,000 in 1967, 10.2/100,000 in 1980 and 5.6/100,000 in 2003. The five non-death penalty countries with the highest murder rates average 21.6 murders per 100,000 people, whereas the five death penalty countries with the highest rates average 41.6/100,000. From 1980 to 2000, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty was 48-101% higher than in states without the death penalty, and 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average.
Finally, and to me most compellingly, the death penalty takes innocent lives. Since 1973, 117 death row inmates have been exonerated, a rate of around one exoneration for every eight executions. A description of each case can be read here; unless I made an error, these inmates spent an average of 8.9 years in prison before being exonerated. This astonishing error rate alone should be enough to take death penalty statutes off the books.