Why it's a problem:
1. Innocent people are being put to death.
Since 1973, 174 people have been exonerated and released from death row. Many of these exonerations occur after it's too late.
A 2014 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found that at least 4.1% of all death-sentenced defendants were, and are, not guilty. These numbers were made purposely conservative- meaning that there is a chance for even higher percentages of innocent people sentenced to death.
Statistics "likely understate the actual problem of wrongful convictions because once an execution has occurred there is often insufficient motivation and finance to keep a case open, and it becomes unlikely at that point that the miscarriage of justice will ever be exposed." (Romano 2003). Many states see exoneration as evidence of a failed justice system. Thus, they are willing to go to great lengths to protect the system from being exposed, including destruction of evidence.
The National Registry of Exonerations highlights that official misconduct and perjury or false accusation are the most common causes of wrongful convictions of the death penalty. Read more here. Even excluding the last 20 years, research from Northwestern University observed that 46 innocent Americans were put on death row because of mistaken and perjured eyewitness identification testimony.
2. The system is racially biased.
The University of Michigan observed in 2018 that 79% of homicide exonerations were marred by official misconduct. Moreover, official misconduct is more common in death penalty cases- especially if the defendant is black. Data shows that 87% of Black exonerees who were sentenced to death were victims of official misconduct, compared to 67% of white death row exonerees.
A 2020 Year End Report found that nearly half of those executed during the year were people of color and 76% of the executions involved White victims. According to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, "Black folks are more likely to be executed than White folks, and those (of any race) who kill White people are more likely to be executed than those (of any race) who kill Black people."
3. The death penalty does not deter violent crime.
The National Research Council of the National Academies concluded that studies claiming the death penalty has a deterrent effect are fundamentally flawed.
Studies have shown that murder rates, including murders of police officers, are consistently higher in states that have the death penalty, while states that abolished the death penalty have the lowest rates of police officers killed in the line of duty.
A nationwide survey of police chiefs put the death penalty last among their priorities for reducing violent crime—below increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy. Surveyed law enforcement officials said they did not believe the death penalty is a deterrent to murder, and they rated it as one of most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars in fighting crime.
4. The system unfairly targets poor populations.
Stephen B. Bright accurately described the death sentence as punishment "not for the worst crime but for the worst lawyer."
Capital defense lawyers have notorious reputations of incompetence. According to a piece published in the American Criminal Law Review in 2018, some defense counsel in death penalty cases have slept through parts of trial, shown up to court intoxicated, or failed to do any work in preparation for sentencing.
5. Public support for the death penalty is at an all-time low.
A 2020 Gallup poll found that national support for the death penalty was at the lowest in a half-century.
A 2019 survey found that a record 60% of Americans favored life imprisonment over the death penalty.
What YOU can do:
1. Arm yourself with the facts.
Read more about it from the ACLU, the Equal Justice Initiative, Amnesty International, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and other independent or opposing sources to develop a well-rounded opinion and gather facts.
2. Talk about it with other people.
Do not underestimate the power of your voice. Talking to friends, family, and other people about reasons for not supporting the death penalty will influence their opinions and play a crucial role if legislation is put to vote, and will lower the public support for the death penalty even more.
Make an event out of it. Journey of Hope is an organization composed of the families and loved ones of murder victims. They offer speakers who travel to various religious locations (i.e. churches, mosques, temples), schools, workplaces, and communities to educate about the death penalty and the needs of families of murder victims. Click here to contact them and ask for details about inviting a speaker from their organization.
3. Show your support.
Send a letter/email/tweet/message to the elected officials in your state. Use the information and suggestions here to get started.
Write to an inmate on death row. Nobody in the world needs companionship or hope more than a person on death row. Up to 23 hours a day, they are locked in a cell. Having someone to talk to can change their lives. Check out Write a Prisoner or Prison Inmate Penpal (I prefer to support Prison Inmate Penpal because they do not charge inmates to list a profile).
4. Join forces.
There are countless organizations working to end the death penalty. Here are the top 7. Or, click here and scroll down to "Advocacy and Abolitionist Groups" to read a more thorough list. Find out what they're doing in your state and get involved in their lobbying efforts.
5. Keep the faith.
Advocating against a cause involving death and incarceration is tough work. It can be emotionally taxing. Just know that we are living in a time where more criminal justice reform is being sought than ever before. And with continued advocacy, there will be an end to this cruel practice.