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July, 2015

A Tennessee Student Reflects on the Death Penalty

Justice. We all know the term. We apply it to a variety of scenarios and, more importantly, claim it as a foundational principle of the US court system. But what exactly is justice? Does it mean that the state should seek the harshest punishment possible for a crime, even when evidence may be called into question? Does it mean that a crime in one state merits a death sentence while the same crime in another state gets a lesser punishment? None of these scenarios fit with our intrinsic view of justice, but they are happening all too frequently in our courts. The difficult truth is that our quest for justice through the use of the death penalty often targets the poor, the uneducated, and those suffering from mental illness, while putting victims’ families through decades of agonized waiting on a sentence that may never be carried out.

I am a 21-year-old college student who knew little about the criminal justice system growing up in Tennessee. I heard the occasional death penalty story on the news, but it never hit home. I had no personal connection and therefore very little emotional investment in this policy. If the death penalty was considered a fair and reasonable form of punishment which provided closure to victims’ families, who was I to protest?

As I became increasingly critical of political and social issues, I decided to take a closer look. The more I studied the criminal justice system in the United States, the more I was left with a deep sense of discomfort and concern. Were we as Americans properly educating ourselves on the harsh reality of the system? Were we aware of the subjectivity and systematic racism that occurs on a regular basis in the application of the death penalty? Stories of botched executions and cruel confinement in solitary cells played over and over in my head. So too did stories of victims’ families who endured a decades long process of appeals, forced to relive the very crime for which they sought closure. I was left asking, where is our compassion? Where is our forgiveness? Where is our belief that every human life has value? How does more violence help to support families of victims?

The troublesome reality is that only 1 out of every 100 murderers is sentenced to death, and these offenders are not always the “worst of the worst.” Approximately 90% of those on death row were financially unable to hire attorneys to represent them. They reality is that 155 people have been released from death row after evidence of their wrongful convictions emerged, casting doubt on the assumption that our current system is exhaustive and without flaw. The reality is that death penalty cases cost far more than comparable non-capital cases, in large part because of the high profile nature of capital trials. The reality is that 80% of death row inmates were convicted for killing white victims, while only 50% of homicide victims are white. The reality is that this system is broken. The death penalty is a failed policy that has a tendency to hurt all those involved, adding deeper pain to scenarios already fraught with violence, loss, and heartbreak.

Here lies the fundamental question: Why does the death penalty matter to YOU? You may be someone who has never personally encountered this policy and likely never will. Why should you care? The truth is that the more we stand complacent, the more we are playing into a system that is inherently flawed. Our country’s death penalty is costly, unevenly applied, and inhumane. It can traumatize not only the inmate’s family but the victim’s family as well. I have learned from victims’ families that while “closure” is elusive, there can be legal finality. However such finality is rarely, if ever, provided in the death penalty system. Families of victims are instead often subjected to multiple appeals, waiting years for a sentence that may ultimately change or never be carried out. We live in a nation that claims to be a human rights champion, yet the death penalty shows little concern for the ultimate worth of a human life.

It is important for all of us to think critically about the system. Seek out the truth, write to your legislators, and take action on one of the most pressing social issues our nation faces. Let us take a stand for justice by first remembering what it means to show compassion.

Dr. Martin Luther King wrote beautifully about loving others in the midst of darkness, and these words are fundamental to the way we should view the death penalty and our responsibility to speak up against it.

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.

Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.

Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.

Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.

In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sarah Ellis

Intern, TADP

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