Toward Universal Abolition by Chris Byrd

With New Hampshire becoming in the 21st state to abolish the death penalty in May and four other states having declared moratoria on executions, the United States is now half abolition and half death penalty—which calls to mind what then US Senate nominee from Illinois Abraham Lincoln famously said in 1858 about our government not being able to endure “half slave and half free.”

As the resolution of our nation’s crucial, untenable 19th-century dilemma was abolition, we may have, with capital punishment, reached the moment when the scales of justice will tip inexorably toward universal abolition in America. The forces and factors which created the momentum to halt executions in half of the country will persist in the states with capital punishment, animating and emboldening abolitionists in those states to accomplish what they have seen done elsewhere.

How this happens, however, will vary somewhat from state to state. Local activists know the issues which uniquely call attention to the flaws and inequities inherent in their states’ application of capital punishment, and which will more likely gain traction with the public and legislators. Abolition may not be one-size-fits-all, but state abolitionists should also point to national currents, which make it difficult to administer executions and turn people against the death penalty to make their own abolition cases.

Serious concerns about executing innocent persons first dented the public’s support for capital punishment. Beginning with Maryland’s Kirk Bloodsworth in 1993, and as recently as March 28, 2019, with Florida’s Clifford Williams Jr., at least 165 people have been exonerated from the nation’s death rows. 

Knowing what we know about these 165 individuals, can we afford to impose irreversible sentences when our system of punishment is so fallible? The late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia was so sure Henry McCollum, a mentally challenged North Carolina man, was guilty of the brutal murder of an 11-year-old girl that he singled him out as the poster boy for why we needed capital punishment in 1994. In 2014, DNA evidence exonerated McCollum.

Furthermore, numerous botched executions, precipitated by the use of questionably appropriate drugs, have renewed the objection that capital punishment violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett’s experience during his April 2014 execution provides strong evidence for this argument. Paramedics and doctors failed several times before finally inserting an IV into him. They then administered three untested drugs in a lethal injection. Believing Lockett was unconscious after applying the sedative midazolam, the medics administered further drugs to stop his heart and paralyze him.

Lockett tried to stand and protest the assault. Observers witnessed the grisly spectacle of Lockett convulsing, writhing, and groaning for 43 minutes before authorities stopped the execution. Ten minutes later Lockett was declared dead of a heart attack. Lockett and others like him have experienced what amounts to torture. Repulsed by this barbarism, more Americans have rejected capital punishment.

According to a 2018 Pew Research poll, support for capital punishment has dropped to 54 percent from the 1994 high of 80 percent. Declining support for the death penalty largely reflects shifts in attitudes among those who identify politically as liberal or independent, but the national advocacy group Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty’s outspoken criticism of capital punishment underscores how broad opposition has become.

As public support for state killing has diminished, jurors nationally have become more reluctant to sentence defendants to death. From high of 315 in 1996, juries in 2018 sentenced only 42 people to death in 2018. In Virginia, a state that has carried out the second highest number of executions nationally, juries haven’t recommended a death sentence in seven years.

The public and juries are more willing than ever to reject the death penalty because they realize life-without-parole sentences will hold people accountable without sinking to the perpetrators’ level. Since 1976, when state killing resumed in the United States, the vast majority of the 1,500 executions nationally have been carried out against poor people, people of color, and the mentally ill, and have been challenged in 13 Southern states.

These state killings haven’t made society safer or better, or brought closure to victims’ families. Executions have cheapened human life and degraded all involved. The rest of the country should embrace what the other half has concluded and end this inhumane practice everywhere.

Chris Byrd writes from Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in America, Sojourners, and the National Catholic Reporter.

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