“Executing people has absolutely nothing to do with deterrence . . . it has nothing to do with stopping crime . . . what it does have to do with is prolonging long-standing national prejudices” about race and class.”
– Stephen John Hartnett, professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver and author of Executing Democracy: Capital Punishment and the Making of America, in an interview with Paul Jay, at the Real News Network
The death penalty, author Stephen John Harnett contends, comes straight out of the playbook of American slavery and was constructed as “part of the arsenal of violence used both to repress slaves in the South and to intimidate the opponents of slavery in the North.” The cover illustration of Harnett’s book depicts a black man being lynched – which is fitting because report after report indicate the death penalty serves only to effectively maintain legal lynching.
Apparently, old habits continue to die hard. The good news, however, is that on May 2, Maryland joined 17 other US states putting a halt to the death penalty, and while that is cause for celebration, well over 100 US citizens have been executed in the last 3 years, and 3,125 were on death row as of January 2013.
They included Willie Manning, an African-American in Mississippi, who was scheduled for execution on May 7 “despite an unusual admission from the FBI that its original analysis of the evidence contained errors.” Fortunately, Manning’s life’s was spared by the Mississippi Supreme Court just hours before his premeditated, ceremonial state-sponsored death.
Nevertheless, as the country with the most punitive criminal justice system in the world – with the highest incarceration rate on the planet and more people behind bars than China, Iran, Russia and other places that Westerners typically point the finger at for disrespecting human rights – the US remains the only G8 member practicing the death penalty.
In many instances, the US death penalty resembles little more than codified state-sponsored terror based on race, and class. It is, perhaps, the most egregious and dehumanizing crown jewel of a culture that increasingly seems skewed toward sloppily-vetted rationales for retaliation and vengeance over fact-finding, mercy and justice for all.
Take Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for instance.
Robert Dunham is the director of training for the Capital Habeas Unit of the Pennsylvania Capital Representation Project of the Philadelphia Federal Defender. In a 2001 article, “Death Penalty and Race,” Dunham wrote: “Philadelphia’s death row of 135 men and women is larger than that of 42 states,” at which time “Philadelphia’s ratio of African American-to-European American death row inmates [was] a shocking 8.69:1 – nearly 11 times worse than corresponding Department of Justice figures for death rows across the South.”
In the “City of Brotherly Love,” Dunham noted, the “death penalty has all the trappings of Southern death-belt racial discrimination.”
The United Nations [UN] approved a resolution in 2007 calling for a global moratorium on all executions, with the research committee for the report finding “that there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States made clear its objection to this UN resolution, withholding its endorsement.
The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), reports that race is a major factor in executions, with African-Americans alarmingly over-represented. In a 2010 podcast on race and the death penalty, a representative of DPIC states that while blacks make up just 12 percent of the US population, we comprise “34 percent of executions and 41 percent of the death row population.”
Clearly, this is a problem than sprawls far beyond the archaic practice of the death penalty. From statements made by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to former President Jimmy Carter and attorney Michele Alexander – author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – voices are being raised about our broken and barbaric, antediluvian justice system.
“We have all these symbols of racial progress,” Alexander said in 2011, “not the least of which is Barack Obama, with black people who are wealthy, in leadership and in powerful in corporations.” This “gives us the illusion of racial progress, but when we scratch the surface of it, there are millions of poor people of color who are stripped of basic civil and human rights.”
Alexander also noted that research shows, “The countries that have the greatest economic inequality [have] the greatest imprisonment.”
The relationship between poverty and incarceration is unfortunately so normalized, it is almost entirely absent from mainstream public debate, even in light of the fact that over the past 30 years, “the federal prison population has jumped from 25,000 to 219,000 inmates – an increase of nearly 790 percent.” Moreover, at the end of 2011, as reported by the Department of Justice, about “1 in every 50 adults in the United States was supervised in the community on probation or parole, while about 1 in every 107 adults was incarcerated in prison or jail.”
Statistics like that do not speak well for any democracy.
The institutionalized racism that pervades our “justice” system is propped up by paranoia and falsehoods of contemporary white supremacy, and, certainly, no state legislature can topple it overnight.
It is, however, encouraging that state-by-state, more legislatures are waking up to the very antidemocratic and uncivilized death penalty. Slow and steady is often the way of true reform, but one has to wonder how many more lives must be lost before the practice of the death penalty is well and truly gone forever.