by William Trollinger
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:
- Poverty matters: Sam’s attorney was right: if a defendant cannot afford adequate counsel, it is much more likely for that defendant to get the death penalty.
- Race matters: If a person of color murders a white person, it is much more likely for that defendant to get the death penalty.
- Geography matters: The South is responsible for 82% of executions in the United States since 1976. The seven states that have led the way in executions – Texas at the top, having killed 565 individuals in the past 43 years – were slave states or slave territories prior to the Civil War. This is no accident: as Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has pointed out, “capital punishment is the stepchild of lynching.” But geographical disparities are also found within states: as Martha Hurley observed, 2% of US counties are responsible for 52% of executions.
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:
- The death penalty is, as documented by the Death Penalty Information Center, “far more expensive than a system utilizing life-without-parole sentences as an alternative punishment.”
- As has been repeatedly demonstrated, capital punishment has no deterrent effect.
- As Scientific American reported in 2014, an estimated 4% of all people sentenced to death since the 1970s were wrongfully convicted. There have been over 150 death penalty exonerations in that time, and there is no question that some innocent people have been put to death.
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.