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.

More articles by:
June 30, 2016
Richard Moser
Clinton and Trump, Fear and Fascism
Pepe Escobar
The Three Harpies are Back!
Ramzy Baroud
Searching for a ‘Responsible Adult’: ‘Is Brexit Good for Israel?’
Dave Lindorff
What is Bernie Up To?
Thomas Barker
Saving Labour From Blairism: the Dangers of Confining the Debate to Existing Members
Jan Oberg
Why is NATO So Irrational Today?
John Stauber
The Debate We Need: Gary Johnson vs Jill Stein
Steve Horn
Obama Administration Approved Over 1,500 Offshore Fracking Permits
Rob Hager
Supreme Court Legalizes Influence Peddling: McDonnell v. United States
Norman Pollack
Economic Nationalism vs. Globalization: Janus-Faced Monopoly Capital
Binoy Kampmark
Railroaded by the Supreme Court: the US Problem with Immigration
Howard Lisnoff
Of Kiddie Crusades and Disregarding the First Amendment in a Public Space
Vijay Prashad
Economic Liberalization Ignores India’s Rural Misery
Caroline Hurley
We Are All Syrians
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
Jeffrey St. Clair
Noam Chomsky, John Halle and a Confederacy of Lampreys: a Note on Lesser Evil Voting
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Feardom: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail