By: Tanya Sierra
This started out as a simple assignment, but it became a moral dilemma. Before this article I supported the death penalty because I believed in our justice system; that it had been reformed so many times in our country’s history that innocent people couldn’t possibly be executed. After spending hours researching for this article, watching countless numbers of documentaries, and seeing a well timed anti-death penalty movie, The Life of David Gale, I am convinced that our capital punishment system is flawed and does not actually help deter crime.
There has been a great deal of debate over the last thirty years as to whether the death penalty actually deters crime, and over 200 studies have been conducted to answer that question. All have reached the same conclusion: it does not. Accordingly 12 states have abolished the death penalty; and today, ten of them have a lower murder rate than the national average.
Also under great debate is whether the system punishes the right person. The finality of the death penalty is such that if a mistake is made, how is it undone? The answer is, it cannot be. Besides the obvious moral dilemma, anti-death penalty advocates have also argued that we can never be 100% sure that the person we are putting to death is guilty and as a result the death penalty should be abolished.
In January 2000, the Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, put a freeze on all executions in Illinois until all the cases on death row could be reviewed. Governor Ryan did this because since 1977, Illinois carried out 12 executions, but set 13 people free. Anthony Porter is one of those 13 people; he was 48 hours away from being executed when a last minute confession from the real killer to journalism students at Northwestern University saved his life.
It has never been proven that innocent people have been executed, but dead men can’t speak; at least Anthony Porter can. Governor Ryan felt that Anthony’s case was proof enough that the system was not working. An independent commission of judges and lawyers was assembled to review all cases awaiting execution. The commission recommended 85 changes to the Illinois capital punishment system, ranging from videotaped confession, to the need for more than one eyewitness testimony to sentence someone to death. Governor Ryan reviewed the commission’s findings and made the decision to change the sentence of everyone on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole, in addition, 4 other convicts were given full pardons.
Governor Ryan’s decision opened the door for further debate on the subject, especially in Maryland where Governor Parris Glendening followed with his own freeze on capital punishment. However, other states have not followed and it is unlikely that the most frequent users of the death penalty, such as Florida, will change their current policy.
Florida, along with Texas and California, has one of the highest death row populations in the country and is the second leading state in carrying out executions. This is a practice that Governor Jeb Bush does not plan to change in the near future. In an article he wrote earlier this year for prodeathpenalty.com, Governor Bush is quoted as saying, “Most Floridians believe in the death penalty because they know it saves innocent lives and punishes only the most heinous criminals.” While it may not be surprising that Florida is one of the leading states to carry out the death penalty, indeed it is surprising that Florida has set 23 people free since 1977; more than any other state. Advances in DNA testing and new evidence contributed to many of these pardons.
So what can be done in the meantime? Life in prison without the possibility of parole is a good solution until we can fix the errors in the system. As young adults we can also take action. Write to your congressional representatives. You may not be a voter today, but you will be soon. You can make a difference by volunteering with anti-death penalty groups like Amnesty International, which dedicates itself to the abolition of the death penalty, among other things.
For my part I have reached this conclusion: There are people on death row who do not deserve to live, but I’ve realized that the decision is not ours to make. Eliminating a life will not bring our loved ones back; we’ll only be committing legal murder.