Righting America

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Capital Punishment and America’s Violent Exceptionalism | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Photo of the Potosi Correctional Center with the center in far distance with a large green lawn and a telephone wire in the foreground with two pine trees and a water tower on opposite sides.
Potosi Correctional Center. Photo (c) 2007 by Wikimedia Commons user Americasroof. CC BY-SA 3.0

On the evening of September 23, 1997 – before I was unceremoniously ushered into the observation booth in Missouri’s Potosi Correctional Center to watch the 12.01 AM execution of my friend, Sam McDonald – I sat in a small waiting room with the other “family and friend” witnesses, including his son, cousin, pastor, and attorney. For seventy minutes or so we talked about Sam, his childhood, and how serving in Vietnam destroyed his life (and, of course, the life of the man he killed). 

Along the way, Sam’s attorney let us know that through the entire appeals process – all the way up to the Supreme Court – he was optimistic that Sam would not be executed, given that Sam was a much-decorated veteran, given that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and given that his defense at his original trial was woefully inadequate. When I made some comment about how unjust this was, his attorney casually noted that, in the end, the fact that Sam was going to be executed was directly connected to the fact he was poor: “whatever the crime, a white person of means is virtually never executed in this country.” 

I thought of this conversation when I was at last week’s terrific panel discussion on “Lethal Injection: Human Rights and the Law,” hosted by the UD Law School, moderated by former Ohio governor Bob Taft, and sponsored by the Miami Valley chapter of Ohioans to Stop Executions and the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative.

The panelists – which included Martha Hurley (director of UD’s Criminal Justice Studies program) and Shelley Inglis (executive director of UD’s Human Rights Center) – pointed out that:

So, we have a capital punishment system in the United States that is riddled with disparities that give the lie to any notion of impartial justice. But there is more:

Given all of this, it is striking that the United States – or, at least, certain counties in the United States – keeps sentencing people to death. Lots of people. And it is even more striking when one considers that, as Shelley Inglis observed, 170 of the 193 countries on the planet have outlawed or placed a moratorium on the death penalty. But the United States continues this practice along with the other 23 countries, a group which includes China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Given that Canada and all European nations (except for Belarus) have abolished the death penalty, the United States is an outlier in the West. As Inglis wryly noted, “this qualifies as evidence of American exceptionalism.” A violent exceptionalism, indeed.