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Is an End to the Death Penalty in Sight?

What’s the good news about the troubling practice of execution in the U.S.? We’re already abolishing it, state by state.

Reggie Clemens photo courtesy of Amnesty International USA

Activists hold pictures of Reggie Clemons, a man on death row despite many flaws with his case, to show their solidarity before he has what could be his final hearing.

Photo courtesy of Amnesty International USA.

Laura Moye is director of Amnesty International USA's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign.

When the book on how we ended the death penalty in the United States is written, I imagine there will be a chapter on Troy Davis. 

On September 21, 2011, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis under a cloud of doubt that he was the actual perpetrator of the 1989 murder of Police Officer Mark MacPhail.

His case awakened scores of people who hadn’t given capital punishment much thought.  We delivered about a million petition signatures from people around the country and around the world to Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles urging clemency.  A high school student from an Atlanta suburb named Gautham was one of the many who helped us collect signatures.  He turned from supporting the death penalty to opposing it, in large part because he learned about Troy Davis’ case.

Countless people told us how relatives and friends who weren’t “activists” were upset about Davis’ case because nothing made sense about how he could be getting closer and closer to death.

With the help of social media and good, old-fashioned street canvassing, we surely broke records for advocacy against an execution.  Abolition advocates I have spoken with could not think of another case that had received this level of response.  Because of the immense media saturation of the story, millions heard about this troubling case.  In addition to independent media like Democracy Now! and black talk radio, the case was being covered on multiple shows on CNN and MSNBC. The major TV networks carried the story nationally.  My apolitical grandmother in rural Southern Illinois was stunned to stumble upon me talking about the case from Atlanta on her TV screen. 

Troy Davis became the second strongest trending topic of 2011 on Twitter, beating out top celebrity news.  Countless people told us how relatives and friends who weren’t “activists” were upset about Davis’ case because nothing made sense about how he could be getting closer and closer to death.  And when the state of Georgia carried out the execution, people, glued to the news, were thoroughly shocked: How could the justice system, with courts at the state and federal level and a parole board with unfettered discretion, allow a man whose case had fallen apart to be killed?  Visits to Amnesty International’s website soared.  Partner organizations, like the NAACP, also reported a high level of interest.  I’ve since met individuals who have become volunteer leaders and paid staffers in abolition groups because Troy Davis woke them up to the ugly reality of the death penalty.

Troy Davis’ case galvanized entirely new groups to join our movement to end the death penalty.  But the reason it had such a profound impact was because the abolitionist movement had already become more strategic and organized. Despite the fact that the criminal justice system presents a crisis for human rights in the United States, in its most severe part—the part that directs government workers to kill prisoners—we are succeeding.  We are, state by state and through legislation, ending the death penalty.

Family members of murder victims are working in California to support Proposition 34, which would replace the death penalty and establish a fund to solve open rape and homicide cases.

In the last five years, five states have ended the death penalty: New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut.  Several more states, including California, Maryland, and Kansas, have been working hard to join that list.  Death sentences and executions are at record lows.  A Gallup poll measuring public support for the death penalty reached a 40-year low in the week after Davis’ execution.  Since Davis’ execution last September, activism sparked by the Troy Davis case was felt in key state campaigns for repeal.  Connecticut repealed the death penalty; 800,000 Californians petitioned to put an initiative that would replace capital punishment with life without parole on the November ballot; Oregon’s governor declared that he would not allow any executions on his watch; two prisoners were exonerated in Tennessee and Ohio; and a report by Columbia University was released effectively proving that an executed prisoner in Texas, Carlos DeLuna, was innocent. 

While execution remains a hot-button political issue, we have already helped change the political climate. We’ve done a better job educating people about the grave problems with the system.  We have enlisted the support of current and former law enforcement professionals, murder victim family members and exonerees to speak about this dysfunctional system. Though most of the 140 death row exonerees had no biological evidence for DNA testing, developments and awareness of DNA technology has helped us expose the fact that wrongful convictions happen.  And when you take a closer look, it is clear that these are not flukes, but a result of systemic errors and misconduct in a fallible and discriminatory justice institution.   

This issue has transcended partisan lines now that politicians are seeing less political gain than they used to for ardently supporting capital punishment.

We are doing a better job engaging and working with those who have had direct experience with the death penalty system and know it is futile at best and deeply destructive at worst. Family members of murder victims are working in California to support Proposition 34, which would replace the death penalty and establish a fund to solve open rape and homicide cases.  Take the example of Judy Kerr, whose brother was murdered in 2003.  She understands that the death penalty actually costs more money than life behind bars, with or without parole.  It diverts attention and resources from solving and preventing violent crime.  Former prosecutors, like Los Angeles’ Gil Garcetti, are speaking out against this failed system has no positive proven effect on public safety.  Conservative lawmakers in Kansas, some for fiscal reasons and some for moral reasons (such as “pro-life” values) are backing a bill to end the death penalty.  This issue has transcended partisan lines now that politicians are seeing less political gain than they used to for ardently supporting capital punishment: the public has caught on to the fact that when it comes to true justice and smart economics, capital punishment as public policy has failed.

Troy Davis Graffiti photo by Marie A.C.
Standing With Troy Davis in His Final Days
A year after the execution, what it was like to stand by him until the end.

We do not lack compelling facts or arguments in the effort to end the death penalty in the U.S., just as almost all industrialized countries have done.  What we need to continue doing is educating people about the reality of the death penalty, helping people to get past the knee-jerk reaction that executions are necessary in the face of violent crime..  We need to point to a constructive and humane vision of criminal justice that respects human rights, rather than one that perpetuates the cycle of violence and injustice.  We need a system that is not only humane for prisoners, but one that protects communities from violence, rather than targeting them; and that honors the many needs of crime victims and their loved ones. 

We will continue to lift up cases like that of Troy Davis to help individual prisoners where we can and to give this issue a face.  I just got back from a hearing being held on the case of Reggie Clemons, in Missouri.  He was sent to death row for participating in two terrible murders.  However, in the pursuit of justice, egregious instances of police and prosecutorial misconduct took place.  We are concerned about how these abuses, among other problems, tainted the case and have marred the full truth.  For us, his case represents another example of why we ought not give governments power over life. 

At this point, 140 countries have turned away from the death penalty, up from 16 when Amnesty International began work for abolition in 1977.  We know the world community is excited to welcome the U.S. to participate in this growing global consensus.


Laura Moye wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Laura is director of Amnesty International USA's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign.

Interested?

  • In Prayer and Protest: The Fight for Troy Davis

    The story in photos: One year ago, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis. See the remarkable photos from his final days, from the perspective of his family, friends, and supporters.

  • Troy Davis' Last Request

    Troy Davis’ last words before his execution on Wednesday night included this call: The tragedy of American capital punishment must come to an end.

  • Beyond Prisons

    The United States locks up more people than any other country, but that hasn't made us safer. The drug war jails thousands of nonviolent addicts. Taxpayers and poor communities lose as states slash social programs to pay for prisons. There's a better way—compassion, not punishment; restoration, not isolation. It's less costly, more humane—and it works.

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