U.S. Must Abolish the Death Penalty Before Criticizing Others on Human Rights Record

So far this year, we have seen many headlines featuring the U.S. urging leaders of other nations to democratize and ensure its citizens basic civil and human rights. In Myanmar, the administration has been responding to the country's political transformation and is supportive of Aung San Suu Kyi’s new role in the government. In China, it has been weighing a delicate balance between maintaining good political relations while urging human rights consideration in the case of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. And in Syria, it has continued to support the opposition group that is fighting against tyranny.

However, for all of its efforts in fighting injustices abroad, the U.S. has its own serious form of injustice at home – the death penalty. As an Atlantic article points out, the U.S.’s support of the death penalty puts it into the same category as the world’s worst dictatorships and autocracies, such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria; and the world’s failed or failing states, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Sudan.

The death penalty may be one of the greatest violations of civil and human rights, particularly when there has been a large number of cases where innocent people – often having been proven innocent too little too late – are the victims of state-sponsored execution. According to Amnesty International, “The death penalty, both in the U.S. and around the world, is discriminatory and is used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities. Since humans are fallible, the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated.”

Since 1976, 1,264 Americans have been executed, according to The Guardian. Texas has executed the most number of people – 474. The next state with the largest number of executions is Virginia at 109, followed by Oklahoma at 96. Other states are within ranges from 0-15, 20-30, or 40-70 executions. What these numbers do not reveal to us, however, is how deeply flawed and racist the death penalty system is. A large number of cases remain incomplete, carrying clouds of doubt, at the time the accused are sent to the death chambers, and a larger proportion of the American black population find themselves on death row.

A controversial case of last year was that of Troy Davis, who was accused of killing a police officer in 1989. Despite seven out of nine key witnesses recanting their evidence and explaining that they were forced by police into giving false statements; and lack of forensic or DNA evidence, or a murder weapon typing Davis to the crime, he was kept on death row for 20 years until finally executed last September.

Davis’ case is not the only one in American history that – despite the existence of “a shadow of a doubt” during the trials – has sentenced innocent people to life in prison or death row. The Innocence Project has a compiled a dizzying list of those convicted of crimes, were incarcerated for a range of years, and were then fortunately exonerated. Some exonerations included those on death row.

With these cases in mind, our justice system has been suffered from a 180 reversal. It seems that the burden of proof has been lifted off of prosecutors and has in these cases been placed on the defense. Instead of presuming innocence until proven guilty, these cases demonstrate that some inmates may actually be presumed guilty until proven innocent. In this case, one of the most basic concepts of our system of justice has been violated. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court allows for the death penalty, with Justice Antonin Scalia explaining that “Capital cases are given especially close scrutiny at every level, which is why in most cases many years elapse before the sentence is executed. And of course capital cases receive special attention in the application of executive clemency.”

However, the Innocence Project’s records of 289 exonerated cases have shown that our justice system is not free from error; it would seem that in reality, capital cases are not given the “close scrutiny” or “special attention” that Justice Scalia mentioned. In particular, there are at least ten cases similar to that of Davis’ – those that lacked evidence and whose facts presented at trials were questionable, but which ended in the prisoner on death row being executed anyway – only to be proven innocent or carrying a strong case of innocence after their deaths. The most notorious of this type of case is that of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed even in the light that the real killer had been bragging to others that he’d committed the crime and that he let another fall for his actions.

While life sentences are just, as they allows life and time for prisoners and lawyers to appeal what may be doubtful cases, the death sentence does not allow either and should be abolished nationwide. Concrete action that everyday citizens can take include signing petitions led by organizations like Amnesty International that place pressure on representatives to take action; or joining coalitions (such as the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty or People of Faith Against the Death Penalty) that organize events and campaigns around the issue.

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Jessica A. Pham

Jessica graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in International Relations.

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