FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Death Penalty Dying Out

by DAVID SWANSON

Most of the world’s governments no longer use the death penalty.  Among wealthy nations there is one exception remaining.  The United States is among the top five killers in the world.  Also in the top five: the recently “liberated” Iraq.

But most of the United States’ 50 states no longer use the death penalty.  There are 18 states that have abolished it, including 6 in this new millennium, including Maryland this week.  Thirty-one states haven’t used the death penalty in the past 5 years, 26 in the past 10 years, 17 in the past 40 years or more.  A handful of Southern states — with Texas in the lead — do most of the killing.

The progress is slow and painful.  Mississippi is right now having trouble deciding whether to spare a man just because he might be innocent.  Maryland has perversely left five people waiting to be killed while banning the death penalty for any future cases.  Next-door in Virginia we hold second place behind Texas and continue to kill.

Virginia electrocuted a man named Robert Gleason in January.  Since then, Texas has killed four men, Ohio two, and Florida, Oklahoma, and Georgia one each — all by lethal injection.  Since 1973, there have been 141 exonerations from death row nationwide, including an innocent Virginian who came within days of being killed.

If you’re convicted of killing a white person in Virginia, you’re over three times as likely to receive the death penalty as you would be if the victim had been black.  The injustice and backwardness is staggering, but so is the lack of democracy.  Only a third of Virginians tell pollsters they favor the death penalty.

The evil of the death penalty is not limited to the instances in which it is used — or to the corrosive influence it has on our culture.  The death penalty primarily serves as a valuable chip in plea bargaining.  Want someone to plead guilty, whether or not they actually are guilty?  Threaten them with the death penalty.  Who needs trials by jury (now used in under 2% of cases) when you have that kind of tool?  And who has time for them when you’ve overloaded the system by treating drug use as a crime?

Remarkably, a former commonwealth’s attorney here in Charlottesville, Va., named Steve Deaton is campaigning for his old job with a commitment to never use or threaten to use the death penalty.

“I believe the death penalty is barbaric and has no place in modern Charlottesville courts,” Deaton says, reversing the electoral wisdom of many decades, which firmly holds that candidates must pretend to believe the death penalty is just and righteous and a deterrent to crime, even if the public thinks that’s nonsense.

“I am calling for a moratorium on death penalty prosecutions,” says Deaton.  “During the past 20 years — that is, the term of the incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney — a number of capital murder charges have been brought against some people, almost all of them poor.  Then the charge is often used as a bargaining chip to get the defendant to plead guilty to murder and accept a life sentence.  This practice of using the threat of death to plea bargain is legal, and under current ethical standards, considered ethical.  However, I find such a practice appalling. By engaging in this practice the prosecutor is tempting fate: what if their threat doesn’t work and the case goes to a jury?”

Many in Charlottesville oppose the death penalty.  Deaton explains the very real possibility that it will nonetheless be employed here: “The notion that no Charlottesville jury will return a death sentence is misleading.  In a capital murder case the jury has to be ‘death qualified,’ meaning that the jurors must believe in the death penalty.  Such a jury is not representative of the community!  Studies have shown that a ‘death qualified jury’ is also much more likely to convict.”

Deaton points out that prosecutors have a great deal of discretion: “A prosecutor does not have to bring a capital murder charge.  They have the option of bringing a regular murder charge instead.”

If elected, Deaton intends to use the enormous discretion given to prosecutors to try to make punishments more reasonably fit crimes, including so-called drug crimes.  While Charlottesville City Council failed by a vote of 3-2 in February to end jail time for possession of marijuana, Deaton intends to charge those possessing marijuana with a different charge: disorderly conduct.  It’s technically a higher level charge — a Class 1 misdemeanor — but it does not carry the draconian punishments of loss of driver’s license, subjection to drug testing, ruined college acceptance and student loan prospects, immigration status, etc.  “If a person makes a mistake, they should be punished.  They shouldn’t have their lives ruined,” Deaton says.

Deaton aims to counter mass-incarceration, not add to it.  “The state has built a new $100 million prison in Grayson County and there is talk of expanding our local jail,” he says.  “All of this in spite of declining crime rates.  It is time to stop feeding the prison-industrial complex. I believe the goal of the justice system should be to empty out spaces in the jails and prisons — not to fill every available space!”

Of course, the system of mass incarceration creates a caste system by stamping the scarlet F of “Felon” on those released, no matter how many years of their lives are wasted in cages.  Deaton favors restoring rights, including voting rights, for people convicted of nonviolent felonies.

Charlottesville has a chance to give the death penalty in Virginia a big push toward the door, which would help the United States and the world along that path.  As Charlottesville only elects Democrats (and packs the full range of great to awful candidates into that one party) the election for Deaton is effectively the June 11th primary.  Anyone in Charlottesville can vote in that primary, without swearing any loyalty to any party.  And anyone else can help to spread the word or donate to the campaign.

David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.

David Swanson wants you to declare peace at http://WorldBeyondWar.org  His new book isWar No More: The Case for Abolition.

May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
Nicolas J S Davies
Escalating U.S. Air Strikes Kill Hundreds of Civilians in Mosul, Iraq
Binoy Kampmark
Class, Football, and Blame: the Hillsborough Disaster Inquest
George Wuerthner
The Economic Value of Yellowstone National Park
Rivera Sun
Celebrating Mother Jones
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir and Postcolonialism
Mairead Maguire
Drop the Just War Theory
Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail