Forty-Five Years Since Furman: What Has Changed?

I received an email this morning from Witness to Innocence, the nation’s only organization dedicated to empowering exonerated death row survivors to be the most effective voice in the struggle to end the death penalty in the United States.  The email reminded me that today marks 45 years since the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the death penalty was unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia.

The email shared excerpts from Justice Thurgood Marshall concurrence in the decision to strike down the death penalty. Reading his words, I again realized that all the realities of  the death penalty system that became the basis to declare it unconstitutional are just as real in today’s death penalty. I have shared Justice Marshall’s words here:

“I believe that the following facts would serve to convince even the most hesitant of citizens to condemn death as a sanction: capital punishment is imposed discriminatorily against certain identifiable classes of people; there is evidence that innocent people have been executed before their innocence can be proved; and the death penalty wreaks havoc with our entire criminal justice system…

It is the poor, and the members of minority groups who are least able to voice their complaints against capital punishment. Their impotence leaves them victims of a sanction that the wealthier, better-represented, just-as-guilty person can escape. So long as the capital sanction is used only against the forlorn, easily forgotten members of society, legislators are content to maintain the status quo, because change would draw attention to the problem and concern might develop. Ignorance is perpetuated and apathy soon becomes its mate, and we have today’s situation…

Just as Americans know little about who is executed and why, they are unaware of the potential dangers of executing an innocent man. Our ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ burden of proof in criminal cases is intended to protect the innocent, but we know it is not fool-proof. Various studies have shown that people whose innocence is later convincingly established are convicted and sentenced to death.  

Proving one’s innocence after a jury finding of guilt is almost impossible. While reviewing courts are willing to entertain all kinds of collateral attacks where a sentence of death is involved, they very rarely dispute the jury’s interpretation of the evidence. This is, perhaps, as it should be. But, if an innocent man has been found guilty, he must then depend on the good faith of the prosecutor’s office to help him establish his innocence. There is evidence, however, that prosecutors do not welcome the idea of having convictions, which they labored hard to secure, overturned, and that their cooperation is highly unlikely.   

No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony, and human error remain all too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed but we can be certain that there were some. Whether there were many is an open question made difficult by the loss of those who were most knowledgeable about the crime for which they were convicted. Surely there will be more as long as capital punishment remains part of our penal law…

At a time in our history when the streets of the Nation’s cities inspire fear and despair, rather than pride and hope, it is difficult to maintain objectivity and concern for our fellow citizens. But, the measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in time of crisis…

In striking down capital punishment, this Court does not malign our system of government. On the contrary, it pays homage to it. Only in a free society could right triumph in difficult times, and could civilization record its magnificent advancement. In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute. We achieve ‘a major milestone in the long road up from barbarism’ and join the approximately 70 other jurisdictions in the world which celebrate their regard for civilization and humanity by shunning capital punishment.”

 

Image from The Buffalo News

Leave a Reply