Is there still a place for the death penalty in modern America?
Illustration: Ella-Rae Heyns

As the Black Lives Matter movement surged after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, amongst others, people took to the streets globally to express their desire for governments to defund and abolish the police. Cities like Minneapolis and Los Angeles began discussions on what the future of their justice system might look like. Actions speak louder than statements, and the world is far from making a dent in the ramifications of centuries worth of abuse, particularly against Black and African-American citizens. 

As of 2016, there were 2.3 million people documented to be in jails and prisons, where a record 40% of the prison population is Black, despite comprising only 13% of the overall US population. This statistic alone is enough to shock, but what is perhaps more concerning is that Black and African-American people make up 41.56% of death row inmates

In 2020, 25 states still utilise capital punishment. Approximately 2,620 inmates are on death row in the US, but for every nine people executed since 1976, one person has been exonerated. As one of the most renowned anti-death penalty activists Bryan Stevenson argues, if for every nine planes that took off, one crashed, no one would fly again. This shocking rate of error alone should alert us to question the existence of capital punishment in modern-day America. 

One of the most famous cases, and subject of the 2019 film Just Mercy, was that of Walter McMillian, the first death row exoneree in Alabama. McMillian spent 15-months on death row before he even went to trial. When he did, it was relocated to Baldwin County, where 86% of the population was white, meaning his jury consisted of 11 white people and just one African-American.

McMillian’s case is one of the hundreds that highlights the evident disproportion in which the death penalty affects Black Americans. It took six years, five appeals and the help of the Equal Justice Initiative for Walter McMillian to walk from Holman State Prison a free man. 

Even though there have been 169 exonerations since 1976, the wrongfully convicted often go unheard. Dominique Barlow has been fighting for justice for her uncle Ray Jefferson Cromartie since his execution in Georgia on 13th November 2019. Cromartie maintained his innocence in the 1994 murder of Richard Slysz, but never received a DNA test. The victim’s daughter wrote a letter to the Georgia Supreme Court requesting they “take action to make sure testing happens”, but her pleas were ignored. 

While the most common argument for the death penalty is that it provides solace for the victim’s families, it isn’t unusual for those closest to the plaintiff to be the ones requesting clemency for the defendant.

Another example of this resides in the case of Nathaniel Woods, the last person executed before the COVID-19 pandemic on 5th March 2020. Woods was charged as an accomplice to the murder of three police officers, a crime the triggerman acquitted him of on multiple occasions. Alabama is the only state where a unanimous vote is not required to sentence someone to death. The judge can overrule a jury’s verdict, which is what also happened in the case of Mr McMillian. 

Woods’ case garnered the attention of advocates such as Martin Luther King III and Kim Kardashian West, who all rallied for a new trial. He wrote a letter to the judge, three days before his execution, requesting new counsel expressing that “after [he] received notice of [his] execution date, [he] did not hear from him”. Kimberly Chisholm, the sister of one of the victims, Harley Chisholm, called the chief staff to Governor Kay Ivey to have mercy on him. The state of Alabama executed him anyway.

A few days later, Nathaniel’s sister Pamela Woods confronted Governor Ivey at a press conference. “Governor Ivey, you killed my brother. He’s an innocent man,” she said, before being cut off by Ivey’s staff. 

Cromartie and Woods are only two of many incidents where the victims’ families have intervened with a hope that they could help stop an execution. Both men did not have access to adequate counsel and had the odds stacked against them. They were both Black men. 

There is no ignoring that the foundation of the American criminal justice system is rooted in systemic racism. With exceedingly high incarceration rates for people of colour, and families of victims fighting against the death penalty, it poses the question; how can capital punishment exist in modern-day America?

The fact that innocent people have been exonerated after execution is not the only valid criticism of the death penalty. It is wildly more expensive to house an inmate on death row, with figures from 2011 estimating that California has spent over $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978, with a cost of up to $300 million per execution. It is the most highly populated death row in the country with 725 inmates, and yet the least active death chamber, with no executions since 2006. California’s spending is not unusual. Across the US, it is estimated that in some states cost per capital punishment case can soar as high as $3 million, with the lethal injection itself costing $1500 each time. 

The psychological cost on exonerees is life-long. Anthony Ray Hinton spent 28 years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he did not commit, and on his first night of freedom, he resorted to sleeping in his friend’s bathroom because he “wasn’t used to being in this open space”. His whole routine became aligned with that of Holman’s regime, waking up at 2:45 AM (when Holman Prison would serve breakfast) and eating dinner at 2 PM. Exoneration does not come with liberation. 

COVID-19 has temporarily slowed the rate of executions in the US. Many states have issued temporary stays, excluding only Texas, Tennessee, and Missouri. Missouri became the first state to execute someone during the pandemic with the death of Walter Barton, who spent 26 years on death row.

July has seemingly accelerated the debate. The most recent state-ordered execution was that of Billy Wardlow who was sentenced to death at just 18 years old based on “future dangerousness”. During appeals, his counsel pushed for considerations of the developments in brain science that demonstrate this cannot be predicted in defendants under 21. The Supreme Court ultimately denied the writ of certiorari, making way for the execution to go ahead as planned on 8th July. A few hours after it had taken place, a video surfaced of Mr Wardlow’s fiançée mourning. It was his last request that his body was documented so that people across the world could see the painful effects of capital punishment. 

Despite the decrease in pending executions per state amidst the pandemic, federal executions were recently reinstated by the Trump administration. This month, Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, and Dustin Lee Honken were put to death by lethal injection despite serious legality issues in each case. Daniel Lee was the first, and ultimately set the tone for a deadly four-day spree of the only federal executions since 2003. In a statement made by Ruth Friedman, Daniel’s attorney, she unpacked various legal issues that took place during the final hours of his life. The execution of Purkey also fell under scrutiny due to his development of schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, suggesting that it may have been unconstitutional.

While debating the ethical question of capital punishment in America, it is important to remember its chilling history. Perhaps one of the most unsettling incidents resides with George Stinney Jr., whose story recently resurfaced amidst the Black Lives Matter movement. He was only 14 years old when the state of South Carolina propped him up on a Bible, placed a mask too big for his face over his mouth and killed him by electric chair. This event took place in 1944, and it was only in 2014 that he was exonerated of killing two young white girls. 

As Bryan Stevenson said, “the true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” Since reinstatement in 1976, capital punishment has been responsible for 1522 deaths. No amount of reform can change that many among them were innocent. As long as the death penalty continues in the face of this unconscionable reality, we have failed.