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Revisiting the death penalty: why capital punishment must end now

In the months, days and even hours leading up to Brandon Bernard’s execution, netizens and celebrities petitioned then-president Donald Trump to pardon him. Shouts and cries emerged from countless media outlets, begging for an end to the death penalty. After December 10, 2020, the noise was silenced as Bernard became the ninth person federally executed under Trump and the youngest offender to be executed in almost 70 years. 

We have seen waves of outcry against capital punishment rise and fall, become loud then quiet. We have seen names like Bernard’s in every headline for months at a time, then forgotten soon after. The death penalty must be put to an end, but the only way to do so is to keep our voices loud and government figures held accountable for political action. 

The death penalty has been used for hundreds of years across the world, but what some believe to be a “just” punishment is unethical and discriminatory at its core. It is time to revisit the topic of capital punishment and make a real effort to leave it in the past. 

The U.S. currently uses lethal injections  for most executions, considering it more “humane” when compared to the electric chair. However, studies have shown that among the five methods of execution that have been used, lethal injections have the highest chance of going drastically wrong and becoming excruciatingly painful with a seven percent botch rate

There is no ethical way to kill another human being, and even more concerning, there is no guarantee that a fair trial has been conducted to deliver an inmate to death row. 

According to the National Academy of Science, around  four percent of criminals sentenced to death are innocent. In a country with a justice system stating a person is innocent until proven guilty, even one wrongly convicted person is a significant problem that tells deeper truths about the reality of our criminal proceedings.

In his final moments, Dustin Higgs, convicted of bullying co-conspirator Willis Mark Haynes into killing three women in 1996, asserted his innocence. Although Haynes stated in an affidavit that Higgs had no part or influence in the murders, on January 16, Higgs became the thirteenth and final federally executed inmate under former President Trump. 

Beyond those wrongly convicted, various other complex forms of corruption plague the justice system. Race also plays a major role in the death penalty system and highlights the need to end capital punishment. 

Juries, which are meant to create a more fair system of distributing justice, are often not formed by a group of the defendant’s peers. A study published by the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies found that people of color are severely underrepresented when selecting jurors. Another report found that juries containing no Black jurors convict Black defendants 81% of the time, and white defendants 66% of the time.

Brandon Bernard was convicted by a nearly all-white jury in 2000. 

Institutional corruption of this sort and more can explain why although approximately 50% of all crime victims are white, 80% of death row cases involve white victims. It can also explain why Black people are being incarcerated on average 5 times more than white people. 

As a result of racial discrimination in the justice system, although the majority of the U.S. population is white, people of color make up 43% of executions and the majority of people waiting on death row are Black. 

There are some of the foremost reasons for the massive fight to end capital punishment and mass incarceration. 

Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, EJI, and author of Just Mercy, lawyer Bryan Stevenson has long been leading the way in fighting the criminal justice system and the racial and economic inequalities within. He is famously known for proving Walter McMillian’s  innocence after McMillian spent six years waiting on death row for killing a white woman. 

But the work to solve corruption and discrimination in the criminal justice system does not happen overnight, it involves tremendous reform to the entire system of mass incarceration. To begin changing how we treat criminals, funding is required, and ending capital punishment, a system so expensive it costs on average 10 times more than non-death penalty cases, is the place to start.   

Capital punishment does not work the way society imagines it does because there is no humane way to kill another person; no government can justify having that power. The death penalty has never been proven to be an effective deterrent to crime, cutting down a common argument made by its supporters. 

The death penalty may represent just a fraction of the criminal justice system, but it highlights bigger issues of corruption that demand attention. Dismantling the death penalty would be a crucial step forward to changing harmful U.S. attitudes towards crime and punishment and reshaping the institutions we falsely believe to deliver justice.

In the process, we must change our attitudes towards social justice. Advocating and fighting for reform cannot be a trendy activity that grows and shrinks in a useless cycle. It requires loud and consistent voices that grab the attention of government figures and holds them accountable for making the real political change on serious issues.