On Tuesday, Missouri may administer a lethal injection to a convict with a condition called cavernous hemangioma. Lawyers for Russell Bucklew argue that the many tumors in his body could burst mid-execution and cause him to choke on his own blood. Which would be gruesome, and potentially unconstitutional. But then, so is our whole system of capital punishment.
It’s long past time to acknowledge that there are many reasons the state should stop executing prisoners. Even for the most egregious crimes, and with no exceptions.
The most compelling reason is that on the other side of the ledger, there’s a big blank space, and no valid rationale for keeping the government in this business.
As everyone knows, the criminal justice system sometimes gets it wrong, and innocent people are executed for crimes they did not commit. No one is for that, and yet it keeps happening.
These cases are a lot less unusual than we’d like to think. Studies have suggested that as many as 1 of every 25 persons sentenced to death in this country is innocent of the crime for which he or she was convicted. Since 1973, 161 death row inmates have been exonerated. Across the country, at least a dozen of those already executed have been pardoned posthumously.
Serious doubts remain about the guilt of dozens of others, including Missouri’s Larry Griffin, who was put to death in 1995 for the murder of a 19-year-old drug dealer. Since his death, the first police officer on the scene of that killing has acknowledged that the testimony of a supposed eyewitness was false. A second shooting victim, never contacted by either the prosecution or defense, says neither Griffin nor the alleged eyewitness was even there.
Last summer, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens stayed the execution of Marcellus Williams, another death row inmate whose guilt is in doubt in the killing of a former newspaper reporter.
Decades of study tell us that racial disparities in the meting out of justice continue to be systemic, and that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Capital cases are far more expensive to prosecute and death row inmates cost the state much more than do convicts sentenced to life without parole.
A common argument for the death penalty is that the worst criminals don’t deserve to live, and that may be. But the American public does deserve better than to have innocent people killed in our name, ever, without equal treatment under the law, doing nothing to reduce the crime rate, and at greater cost to taxpayers.
Do we deserve to remain in the moral universe inhabited by the world’s other top executioners: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan?
Just this month alone, Alabama executed a seriously mentally ill man, and Georgia executed a man who had been excluded as the perpetrator in some of the crimes that officials said were all committed by him. The California Supreme Court granted a new trial to a man sentenced to death 25 years ago on the basis of false evidence.
The death penalty has been discredited, and it doesn’t deserve to survive.