In conversation with most people who identify as liberals or progressives, I will generally find agreement on most issues. One topic remains disconcerting, though, and that is the continued liberal support for the death penalty. On this very site, a number of people believe that the death penalty is a good idea in the abstract. One of my professors, Dr. David R. Dow, believes that support for the death penalty may be a mile wide, but it is just an inch deep. I believe this conclusion is especially true for people who identify with liberal causes. For most of these people, support for the death penalty in the abstract is the result of too little thought on the issue and a less than concrete understanding of the underlying issues.
Consider it a compliment that I come to this community with arguments that strike at the soul in addition to those that strike only in the checkbook. If I were writing this diary for Redstate or FreeRepublic, I wouldn't go much further than telling the story of how the death penalty costs the state of North Carolina roughly $11 million more per year or how the savings in Florida might be as much as $50 million per year if the death penalty was itself sent to the gallows. But this community is better than that. We're concerned about fiscal issues, but I believe that people here are capable of parsing political problems in a more evolved manner. We will touch on the economics in a minute, but first, we must diagnose the humanitarian problems with the death penalty as it is currently applied.
"You don't have to start working on the death penalty. Just start working on poverty and you will eventually find your way there."Sister Helen quickly discovered what many people within the industry have noted - you are practically exempt from the death penalty if you make more than $50,000. The reasons for this are obvious by those who have spent time in the "justice" systems of states like Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Virginia. People are usually sentenced to death not because of their particularly ugly qualities in comparison with other killers. And they are sentenced to death not because of the particularly ugly nature of their crimes when compared to other criminals. Instead, they are put to death most often because their trial lawyer was so bad that he made mistakes that even a highly skilled appellate and post-conviction attorney cannot fix. The majority of people who receive the death penalty have been represented by court-appointed attorneys who lack the time, motivation, financial resources, skill, or experience to handle capital cases. In most instances, there is some confluence of the above-listed factors that keeps court-appointed attorneys from doing even a passable job.
In Texas, court-appointed attorneys have slept through the trials of their clients. One particularly egregious example occurred when an attorney slept as the prosecutor suggested to the jury that a gay defendant needed death because prison is more like a vacation to someone who is gay. In another case, a defendant lost his appeal in which the court asked whether his lawyer had slept through any of the important parts of the trial. The system is designed in a way that disallows later appeals if an attorney fails to raise certain objections at trial. In essence, many states assign unqualified attorneys to clients, then punish those clients on appeal for the mistakes made by the poorly paid and poorly vetted attorneys. It is a sick system of Screw You Twice that we inflict only on those people so indigent that they cannot afford their own lawyers.
"sending a homosexual to the penitentiary certainlyFaced with the Gideon v. Wainwright Supreme Court mandate that requires states to provide attorneys for clients, many states fail in their sixth amendment duty by constructing a public defense system that all but ensures the impossibility of a fair trial. Faced with clear statistics supporting the effectiveness of public defender offices in defending clients, these states shop for their public defense at the Family Dollar, spending as little as possible on independent attorneys who have been lucky enough to maintain a relationship with the judge who will handle the case. As you might guess, these lawyers have a disturbing conflict of interest - do they serve their client with vigor or do they handle the case in a convenient way for the judge, ensuring additional future assignments?
isn't a very bad punishment for a homosexual."
- From the prosecutor's closing arguments
Though I do not purport to speak for the entire progressive movement, I understand it to advocate for government systems that protect those who cannot protect themselves. Nowhere in government are the poor more oppressed than in death penalty litigation. Yet when polling asks whether people support the death penalty in the abstract, the numbers consistently sit in the 60-percent range. How can this be? This indicates a host of crossover liberal support.
Sister Helen has been adamant in noting that the death penalty is a problem that's about more than just poverty. She describes it as a bandaid or perhaps a cotton swab. Pull back the scab and you will find some of America's most insidious problems hiding underneath. She notes three - the previously mentioned themes of poverty, the soon-to-be-discussed themes of racism, and the ways in which the death penalty teaches society to respond to problems with violent solutions.
These people often point out to me the very true fact that on death row, there are roughly the same number of black people and white people. Though a black person is still more likely to be sentenced to death for a murder than his white counterpart, the real racial issues arise when we discuss the victims. I explain this through what I call the water glass theory. This theory is designed to describe how to value various victims.
If you start out with two murderers - a black man and a white man - the jury might value those two people at different levels prior to the murder. Perhaps the black man earns eight ounces worth of value, while the white man earns ten ounces worth of value. When a person makes the choice to go so far outside of the bounds of society that they kill, we pour out that person's life. We look at them as something less than human, and they all end up at zero ounces in the end. For victims, though, the story is very different.
The statistics suggest that for every two ounces of value we assign to a black victim, we assign ten ounces of value to the white victim. And those glasses are not poured out, either. People who kill white victims are roughly four times more likely to be sentenced to death than a a person who kills a black victim. Sadly, the death penalty exposes the absolute worst in our human nature - we value some lives more than others, and those "some" lives are more often white.
Dr. Dow described the phenomenon in relatively chilling terms - if you are going to kill someone and you don't want to get the death penalty, make sure the person you kill is black. I would extend that one further - given how victim impact statements come into play, you might want to make sure the person you kill has no family or tie to society. Are you a white person making $100,000? Kill a homeless black man and the chances of you being strapped to a gurney are roughly proportional to the chances of me playing center field for the Tampa Bay Rays.
We have here a case of systemic racism. The structure itself is designed to feed the racist impulses of the people who power the system. Is every DA, judge, and jury member a racist? Probably not, though quite a few certainly are. But our system - one where rules on pre-emptory strikes are not enforced and where black murder defendants face the possibility of death in front of twelve white jurors - is designed for racially disparate outcomes. Perhaps more chilling is the power this has been given by the Supreme Court, which has held that evidence of racism in the system is not evidence of racism in a specific case. If you are a defendant who claims his death sentence was racially motivated, you better have an email on file from the district attorney admitting that he wants the death penalty because you are black. In one case described in Dr. Dow's book, an appellate attorney for the state mocked the conversation of two black men, one of whom was mentally retarded. In an open Texas court, that fine representative of the state read a transcript with his best impersonation of what a black retarded man might sound like. That defendant had no luck in proving that his sentence was racially discriminatory.
The death penalty also aids in the creation of a culture where violence is the proper way to respond to disputes. Sure - our laws say that killing is wrong in some circumstances. But many of our state governments - and our military and federal government - say that it's alright to take a human life if that taking can be justified in some way. This is revenge parading as justice, and it's a critical factor in the establishment of a society that sees many more murders that its western counterparts.
The final issue is one of the most important. Here, I argue that the death penalty actually contributes to increased crime. This is because the death penalty adds to income inequality, and income inequality is one of the leading contributors to both violent crime and property crime.
Search the annals of this website and you will find a few central themes in many of its works. One is income inequality - the continued widening gap between the rich and the poor. What many don't know is that this factor is highly correlated to high crime rates around the world. When people have no hope, they have very little to lose. When that happens, the social controls that make laws more effective are broken. When the threads that connect people to society are shredded, they have less respect for society and its laws. This combination of a lack of respect for society's laws and a person having little to lose creates a scenario where more robberies and other crimes take place. Most murders happen as the person attempts to commit a different serious crime.
How does the death penalty contribute to income inequality? If you have read that the death penalty costs much more than imprisoning a person for life, then you might have had a question - where does all this money go? Is it really that expensive to put a needle in a person's arm? The answer is no, it's not. The money is sunk into appeals, habeus corpus petitions and reviews, and other judicial processes. When the state attempts to take a life, the stakes are incredibly high - so much so that the constitution provides additional legal protections for the accused. Many of the dollars used in these cases are going into the hands of defense attorneys, judges, investigators, and expert witnesses. These dollars are going to DNA companies and ballistics companies. These are precious dollars - millions, in fact - funneled directly from the state into the hands of businesses and already wealthy professionals. In the vast majority of capital cases, states are funding both sides of the trial though state funding for defense, as mentioned earlier, is wholly inadequate.
Think of what could be done with these dollars? Most propose that those dollars be put back into law enforcement, but that, too, is a wildly inefficient way to prevent crime and stop the murders that put people in capital trials. What if Florida had an extra 51 million dollars per year to pour into public services for the poor? What if Texas had extra money to pay its teachers or extra money for new schools? What if we could fund hunger-eradication programs to help poor students get the food that their brains need in order to process the information in school? What if we invested in social services that monitored at-risk children in abusive homes, pulling those kids out of their situations before they suffered life-altering trauma that might later result in a horrible decision? You don't have to be creative to figure out ways that we might invest those dollars to support the downtrodden, thus closing the income gap that serves a precipitating factor for crime.
Yet here we are, mindlessly pursuing the death penalty out of a need to indulge our most barbarian instincts of revenge and anger. Sure, that societal anger might be justified. But decisions made for payback are rarely rational or beneficial. Take the case of the man who approaches a car that won't turn off its high beams. In a fit of anger, the first driver turns on his own high beams as he passes the second car. This does nothing good, and in fact, his blinding of the second driver increases the chances of a dangerous accident by some multiple. That's what we do with the death penalty. Our anger drives us to irrational places, and we pursue an option that leaves society significantly worse off.
The death penalty is an issue of progressive concern. It touches all of the major areas that progressives like to write and speak about. If Dr. Dow is right that support for the death penalty is one mile wide and one inch deep, then perhaps progressives will re-evaluate their own support for an racist institution that vests too much power in the state to kill a sub-class of people that end up being disproportionately poor, mentally disturbed, and brown.