The death penalty is unusual

Published 12:00 pm Friday, March 11, 2016

TJ Ray


Recently someone wrote a piece for The Oxford EAGLE that raised the question about the meaning of life and who has the power to terminate it.

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We humans create many fantastic things: cars that will stop and park themselves, systems that provide blind folks with some useful sight, rockets that take people out of our solar system. But thus far — and hopefully never in the future — are we able to make a living being.

But our state is one of a large group that practice the sanctioned taking of life. One can only shudder when thinking of the number of innocent people who died at the state’s hands.

The question of whether a state may execute a criminal always troubled me. As there is perhaps no punishment more severe than death, I’ve wondered why that is not cruel and unusual. Every time the execution of a criminal is imminent, defense lawyers routinely challenge the constitutionality of the punishment.

Finally, one of the Supreme Court justices agrees. In his dissent to the Glossip v. Gross decision, Justice Stephen Breyer fiercely argued that, by today’s societal standards, capital punishment is both cruel and unusual.

Not only did the justice argue that the practice is cruel, he made a case for its also being unusual. In the 31 states that do not legally forbid the death penalty, more than a third have not actually conducted an execution since 2007. (Therefore, in total, 30 states have eliminated the death penalty either through legislative action or by common practice.) Another nine states have conducted fewer than five executions since 2007.

That leaves only 11 states where the death penalty cannot be deemed “unusual.” Even in the 11 states where the death penalty isn’t “unusual,” three states conduct an overwhelming majority of the total executions. In 2014, 80 percent of all U.S. executions took place in Texas, Missouri and Florida, where less than 17 percent of the U.S. population lived.

Judge Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit wrote, ‘‘[W]e have little more than an illusion of a death penalty in this country. … Whatever purposes the death penalty is said to serve — deterrence, retribution, assuaging the pain suffered by victims’ families — these purposes are not served by the system as it now operates.”

The most recent state to abolish the death penalty was Nebraska, where a majority of a conservative legislature overrode the governor’s veto. Their reasons include mistrust of government, fiscal responsibility (pursuing a death penalty case over years or decades of appeals is expensive) and a religious consistency about the sanctity of life.

At the core of this growing momentum is the decision by philosophically pro-death penalty lawmakers and residents to give up on a policy they believe had failed. These failures were acknowledged by the broad coalition of Nebraskans directly affected by the issue — families of murder victims, law enforcement and the wrongfully convicted.

Over two dozen victims’ families joined the effort to say that the death penalty did not heal their pain, and in fact exacerbated it by dragging them through a lengthy, traumatizing process that rarely ends in the promised result.

Ten states have either ended the death penalty or officially suspended executions in quick succession since 2007. One can only hope that Mississippi leaders choose to avoid being the last state to do something right by joining this move away from state killing.

As with numerous arguments one encounters, pros and cons are thrown out, often with statistics to support their authenticity and accuracy. Just so with the death penalty.

Since 2000 of the 336 people exonerated through DNA evidence, no less than 20 were on death row. Balance that number of innocent lives spared with the conclusion some studies argued about lives saved: for each inmate put to death, three to 18 murders were prevented. How that baffling number was reached is beyond me. But there you have it: 20 lives saved from wrongful execution versus three to 18 spared because executions were carried out.

Man the gadget maker does not give life. By what rationale does he presume to take it?

TJ Ray, a retired professor of English at the University of Mississippi, can be reached at