Death in Our Name: End the Death Penalty

This is an execution photo from Getty Images, circa 1900, with the provided caption: An African-American man being strapped into an electric chair by five Caucasian men at Sing-Sing prison, Ossining, New York. (Photo by William Vander Weyde/George Eastman Museum/Getty Images).

In the United States, 1,543 people have been put to death by the state (I use the state in its broad category, but obviously, that encompasses the states that still utilize the death penalty) since 1976, when the Supreme Court greenlighted its availability again, so long as states re-wrote their statues.

The Court effectively suspended the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, and then greenlit again in 1976 with Gregg v. Georgia, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit organization.

Believe it or not, the peak of the death penalty “craze” since the re-instatement of the practice was in the 1990s, particularly 1999, which saw the most of any year, with 98 executions.

At least 27 states (a majority of the states) allow execution: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California*, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon*, Pennsylvania*, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

Executions are also still sanctioned under the purview of the federal government, and the United States military. Notably, after a 17-year hiatus, federal executions sped up when resumed in July 2020 under former President Donald Trump, with 13 death row inmates executed between then and Jan. 16, 2021. That pace is unfathomable, and unconscionable. As for the military, they haven’t executed one of their own since 1961, and that actually wasn’t even for murder, it was for rape and attempted murder.

*These states have governor-imposed moratoriums on the use of the death penalty, without it actually being rescinded, however. For example, only voters in California can repeal the death penalty, something they have rejected when put on the ballot only a few years ago; so, as soon as Gov. Gavin Newsom is no longer governor, theoretically, executions could resume after his 2019 executive order stopping them. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown continued the moratorium on executions that was begun in 2011 by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber. There has been a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania since 2015.

Correspondingly, since 1973, there have been 187 people released from death row with evidence of their innocence, according to DPIC. The most have come from Florida (30).

Think about that. If not for the work of organizations like the Innocence Project, DPIC, pro bono defense attorneys, and other organizations keeping a watchful eye on police, prosecutors, and judges, 185 people would have been killed in our name and ostensibly in the name of justice. And that’s just the ones we know about!

Something I didn’t realize is that a number of states since 1976 still use methods other than lethal injection, even though that is the primary method (1,363 executions used with that method); electrocution occurred 163 times; the gas chamber was used 11 times (that’s horrific); hanging (!) was used three times; and the firing squad was used three times. The states that offer those methods consider them “backups.”

The reason my brain got onto the death penalty this morning is because one of those states that offer backups, South Carolina, is in the news recently because they are about to execute their first death row inmate since 2011 via (apparently his choice) firing squad.

Check out this opening sentence in The State’s report on the matter:

South Carolina courts gave Richard Moore eight days to decide exactly how he wants to die, and on Friday he made his choice.

Choose how you want to die. If that is not the definition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” which goes directly against the Eighth Amendment’s edict against cruel and unusual punishment, then I don’t know what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” in the eyes of the state.

His other option was the electric chair. Why did the state default to the electric chair in 2021? Because the South Carolina Department of Corrections has been unable for years to procure the drugs needed to carry out lethal injection. That’s a problem that’s been plaguing the death penalty states for years.

Just extraordinary.

The SC DoC released the following image themselves, touting its “renovated capital punishment facility,” as seen from the witness room at the agency’s Broad River Road complex in Columbia. The firing squad chair is shown on the left, uncovered. The covered chair is the electric chair, which does not move.

Gross, but we must bear witness to what is done in our name.

Look at our fancy renovated capital punishment facility (euphemisms!), featuring two methods of execution in which we “allow” a death row inmate to choose from, only because we can’t kill them the typical way due to our inability to procure the necessary drugs.

Sorry for the sarcasm, but the whole thing is dystopian. That’s cruel and unusual. That’s barbarism. In. Our. Name.

The case in South Carolina is just yet another marker in the column for, “It is past time to end the death penalty.”

I’m not even going to rehash the usual arguments against the death penalty — that it’s racist and classist, more costly, ensnares the innocent, is unconstitutional, inhumane, and immoral — because that SC DoC photo alone should speak for itself, much less the backstory behind it, for any person of upstanding moral character.

In fact, I think it is incumbent upon those who think that photo is a legitimate exercise of state power to defend that position. They can’t.

End the death penalty. Now.

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