How does the death penalty work in the United States?
The death penalty can be carried out at the state or federal level, and the most common method is lethal injection. However, 16 states also authorize “secondary methods,” which include “electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, nitrogen hypoxia, and firing squad.” (“States and Capital Punishment”). By law, the federal government and most states require that the jury votes unanimously in favor of the death penalty, with the exception of Alabama (Mahoney). The Florida supreme court recently issued a ruling that would allow the legislature to rescind that requirement as well (Mahoney).
The death penalty is flawed and horrifyingly racist.
A 2014 study of death row determined that over 1 in 25 people executed in the US are wrongly convicted (Pilkington). The United States justice system is deeply flawed, and when its power extends to the right to execute, it inevitably translates to the murder of many innocent or wrongly convicted people. The death penalty is also fundamentally racist, with people of color making up a disproportionately overrepresented in US executions (“Race and the Death Penalty”). Furthermore, the death penalty consistently exposes and reinforces the tendency of US systems, particularly the justice system, to value white lives more than Black lives. In fact, someone convicted of murdering a white person is 4 times more likely to be sentenced to death and 17 times more likely to be executed than someone convicted of murdering a white person (Liptak). The death penalty does not represent justice.
Often, people perceive errors in the death penalty, such as the execution of innocent or wrongly convicted people, as unfortunate errors that are only detectable after the fact. However, the system is willing to be flagrantly corrupt in plain site, allowing pending executions to proceed despite public outrage and evidence of an erroneous trial. The case of Brandon Bernard, who was executed by lethal injection earlier this month on December 10, exemplifies this clearly. Bernard was sentenced to death as a teenager by a jury in 1999 for his involvement in a robbery where his accomplice murdered Todd and Stacey Bagley. Though he was not innocent of committing any crimes, the process that placed him on death row is clearly flawed. New evidence, previously undisclosed by prosecutors during the trial, demonstrates that Bernard had a different role in the crime than previously thought (“U.S. Executes Brandon Bernard”). This prompted many of the former jurors in the case to state that the evidence would have influenced their decision. Regardless, the United States carried out the execution, knowingly violating even its own substandard definition of justice. Not only is the death penalty fundamentally immoral, the US government and justice system is callously irresponsible with its administration.
An overstep of government power.
The atrocity of many of the crimes that land people on death row gives rise to the prevalent argument that they “deserve” to be executed to fulfill “justice” and closure for the victims’ loved ones. However, no matter how horrifying an action is, giving the government the power to take life in consequence is a dangerous extension of its power. Governments have the authority to utilize due process to determine when restricting individual liberty is an appropriate response that serves justice and maintains safety. Death, however, is different. There is still no evidence that the death penalty ensures public safety by deterring violent crime, and governments cannot set up a justice system, no matter how elaborate or revered, that has the true right to determine when ending a life fulfills justice.
Actions to take to stop pending executions
Federal executions in the US resumed recently following a stay that lasted just short of two decades (“Federal Government to Resume Capital Punishment After Nearly Two Decade Lapse”). Below are some steps you can take to stop pending federal executions and advocate for abolishing the death penalty.
Halting an execution typically requires an act of clemency from the President in the case of federal executions. For state executions, either the Governor or separate administrative board has the authority, depending on the state constitution (“Clemency”). Often, clemency will change the sentence from capital punishment to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Below are some steps to halt pending executions:
- Contact the officials with the power to grant clemency or delay the execution. Call their offices, email them, tweet at them or tag in other social media platforms, and spread information to get as many to participate as possible. It’s important to know whether the execution is under state or federal jurisdiction, and research the case to ensure you are contacting the right places. There are often organizations or legal teams mobilizing to halt the execution, and they may have already compiled helpful action steps for you to take.
- For federal executions, here are some places to start contacting:
- To email the President at the White House: firstname.lastname@example.org
- To call the white house: (202) 456-1414
- To call the Department of Justice: (202) 353-1555 (press 9 to leave a voicemail)
- Make sure to look for petitions to sign that encourage elected officials to use clemency powers. These courts may also seek for courts to delay the execution.
“Clemency.” Death Penalty Information Center, 2020, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/clemency.
Ehrenfreund, Max. “There’s still no evidence that executions deter criminals.” The Washington Post, 30 April 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk /wp/2014/04/30/theres-still-no-evidence-that-executions-deter-criminals/.
“Federal Government to Resume Capital Punishment After Nearly Two Decade Lapse.” Office of Public Affiars, The United States Department of Justice, 25 July 2019, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/federal-government-resume-capital-punishment-after-nearly-two-decade-lapse.
Liptak, Adam. “A Vast Racial Gap in Death Penalty Cases, New Study Finds.” The New York Times, 3 August 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/us/racial -gap-death-penalty.html.
Mahoney, Emily L. “Florida Supreme Court says unanimous jury not needed for death penalty in major reversal.” Tampa Bay Times, 24 January 2020, https://www.tampabay.com/florida-politics/buzz/2020/01/23/florida-supreme-court-says-unanimous-jury-not-needed-for-death-penalty-in-major-reversal/.
Pilkington, Ed. “US death row study: 4% of defendants sentenced to die are innocent.” The Guardian, 28 April 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/28/ death-penalty-study-4-percent-defendants-innocent.
“Race and the Death Penalty.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2020, https://www.aclu.org/other/race-and-death-penalty.
“ States and Capital Punishment.” National Conference of State Legislatures. 2020, https://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/death-penalty.aspx.
“U.S. Executes Brandon Bernard After Supreme Court Denies Stay.” NPR, 11 December 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/12/11/945294282 /u-s-executes-brandon-bernard-after-supreme-court-denies-stay.
I am 16 years old and an incoming junior at Gainesville High School in Florida. I will be Junior Class President for the class of 2022, I serve in Student Government, and I am passionate about using my voice to create positive change.