Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia recently made the remark that it “wouldn’t surprise” him if the Supreme Court strikes down capital punishment soon.
Over 1,000 people have been executed in the United States since 1976. How many of those people were truly guilty? How many were mentally unstable and therefore unable to account for their actions? Is capital punishment itself humane?
To the last question: no.
The topic itself is surrounded by controversy and high stakes considering that lives depend on the sanctity of a fallible justice system.
“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” English jurist William Blackstone made this statement, known as the Blackstone Formulation, regarding the justice system in 1765. Nearly 250 years later the statement still pertains to the current state of the death penalty controversy in the United States.
Unfortunately, justice isn’t always blind. Studies have shown that certain demographics, specifically black and Latino males, are doled out harsher sentences and are more likely to be presumed guilty compared to the rest of the crime pool. Concerning capital punishment, black and Latino defendants are more likely to be put to death than if the defendant was white.
This extremely biased view towards administering punishment is reason enough to strike down the punishment, however there is even more cause to support the end of the death penalty. New evidence concerning several different cases have come out over the years, which either proves the innocence of or at least provides reasonable doubt to the cases of executed inmates.
Lena Baker, an African American woman convicted by an entirely white male jury, was executed in 1945. 60 years after her death, Baker was granted a pardon by the state of Georgia.
Carlos de Luna, Larry Griffin, Leo James, Gary Graham and more were all convicted felons when new evidence or testimonials about their cases came to light, shedding doubt in their sentencing. All would have a good case for release from prison if only they had not been executed before these contradictory corroborations surfaced.
They are certainly not the only ones. A study gave a conservative estimate that 4.1 percent of inmates on death row or already executed would eventually be proven innocent and subsequently exonerated. This compared to another study that gives an understated approximation that five to ten percent of these inmates are severely mentally ill. By the Blackstone Formulation, this is unacceptable.
Irregular sentencing and possible innocence aside, the mentally ill are an especially vulnerable group to capital punishment. The argument has only recently been made, due to the social acceptance of psychology, that the mentally disturbed or unstable should be exempt from death row due to not understanding the full implications of their actions.
When describing her reasons for opposing the death penalty, Angelica Fell, senior sociology and gender studies double major, said, “some individuals that are put to death may be suffering from mental illnesses and are unable to get the chance to receive medical help.”
In Ford v. Wainwright (1986) it was established by the Supreme Court that only the “insane” and mentally disabled are excused from capital punishment. But as with most things, there is always a varying degree in which there is never a clear cut answer as to who qualifies for such treatment.
The death penalty is universally a cruel and unusual punishment, one in which the United States is alone in supporting among other Western industrialized countries.
Sometimes the innocent are wrongly accused and the guilty go free. Recent news has shown a plethora of people released from prison years, sometimes even decades, after sentencing due to new evidence proving blamelessness.
Execution victims will never have that chance even if proven innocent.
Fell stated, “overall, I think it would be beneficial to strike down the death penalty,” and I can’t help but agree.