Philippine Standard Time
Monday, June 10, 2019, 2:18:54AM

In Defense of the Right to Life: International Law and Death Penalty in the Philippines

A study by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines and Dr. Christopher Ward, SC, Australian Bar, Adjunct Professor, Australian National University

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Virginia Becomes First Southern State to Abolish the Death Penalty
The New York Times | https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/24/us/politics/virginia-death-penalty.html, March 24, 2021
Death penalty debate reemerges in Nevada after past stalls
Fox 5 (Las Vegas) | https://www.fox5vegas.com/election_hq/death-penalty-debate-reemerges-in-nevada-after-past-stalls/article_0688f6c2-8cf7-11eb-92c9-87b29a7fff72.html, March 24, 2021
Virginia becomes first state in US south to abolish death penalty
ALJAZEERA | https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/24/virginia-becomes-first-southern-state-to-end-death-penalty, March 24, 2021
Abolish the federal death penalty
Chicago Sun-times | https://chicago.suntimes.com/2021/3/1/22308151/federal-death-penalty-abolish-illinois-editorial, March 01, 2021
Family members of murder victims speak out against the death penalty
KPVI News 6 | https://www.kpvi.com/news/local_news/family-members-of-murder-victims-speak-out-against-the-death-penalty/article_a277f95a-7b0b-11eb-b0db-e71c026bc980.html, March 01, 2021
Bill To Repeal Death Penalty Filed In Wyoming Legislature
Kgab | https://kgab.com/bill-to-repeal-death-penalty-filed-in-wyoming-legislature/, March 01, 2021
State Senate Votes to Abolish Death Penalty
Newsradio 1140 WRVA | https://www.radio.com/newsradiowrva/articles/local/state-senate-votes-to-abolish-death-penalty, February 04, 2021
Trump administration carries out 13th, final federal execution
Aljazeera | https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/16/trump-administration-carries-out-13th-final-federal-execution, January 16, 2021
A federal judge has granted a stay of execution for the only woman on federal death row pending a competency hearing
CNN | https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/12/us/lisa-montgomery-execution-stayed/index.html, January 12, 2021
Asian Nations Reject UN Vote Against Death Penalty
Human Rights Watch | https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/25/asian-nations-reject-un-vote-against-death-penalty, November 24, 2020
Holy See: ‘Death penalty the most shocking thing in the world
Vatican News | https://www.vaticannews.va/en.html, October 10, 2020
Tunisia president calls for return of death penalty following brutal killing
The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/oct/01/tunisia-president-calls-for-return-of-death-penalty-following-brutal-killing, October 01, 2020
Kazakhstan takes important step towards abolishing death penalty
Amnesty Internatonal | https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/09/kazakhstan-takes-important-step-towards-abolishing-death-penalty/, September 24, 2020
US Bishops stress opposition to death penalty
Independent Catholic News | https://www.indcatholicnews.com/news/40518, September 23, 2020
‘Travesty of justice’: Reaction to execution of Iranian wrestler
Aljazeera | https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/9/14/travesty-of-justice-reaction-to-execution-of-iranian-wrestler, September 14, 2020
Unpacking public opinion on the death penalty
Asia Pacific Forum | https://www.asiapacificforum.net/news/unpacking-public-opinion-death-penalty/?fbclid=IwAR1nZrobPsNYhxX0OPAMarJzD5XNqcgpYDWN26O7NXkr4ZomfUPk5jiGhvI, July 28, 2020
The Florida Supreme Court’s U-turn on the death penalty
Tampa Bay Times | https://www.tampabay.com/opinion/2020/05/27/the-florida-supreme-courts-u-turn-on-the-death-penalty-editorial/, May 28, 2020
Man sentenced to death in Singapore via Zoom
BBC News | https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52739676, May 20, 2020
Saudi Arabia ends death penalty for crimes committed by minors
The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/27/saudi-arabia-ends-death-penalty-for-minors, April 27, 2020
Catholic leaders praise abolition of death penalty in Colorado
CRUX | https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2020/03/catholic-leaders-praise-abolition-of-death-penalty-in-colorado/, March 25, 2020
Colorado Abolishes Death Penalty and Commutes Sentences of Death Row Inmates
The New York Times | https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/us/colorado-death-penalty-repeal.html, March 23, 2020
UK urged to act over men facing death in Egypt for alleged childhood crimes
The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/08/uk-urged-to-act-over-men-facing-death-in-egypt-for-alleged-childhood-crimes, March 08, 2020
Berlin International Film Festival: Iranian film about executions wins top prize
BBC | https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-51693417, February 29, 2020
Trump condemned after claiming very powerful death penalty would reduce drug dealing
The Independent | https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-drug-death-penalty-china-crime-white-house-a9328356.html, February 11, 2020
Outsourcing injustice: Guantanamo on the Euphrates
Al Jazeera News | https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/outsourcing-injustice-guantanamo-euphrates-200203105251830.html, February 04, 2020
British Isis prisoners may end up in Iraq, where death sentences are handed down without due process
Independent | https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-iraq-international-law-prisoner-deaths-trial-a9311556.html, February 02, 2020
Saudi Arabia executed record number of prisoners in 2019: Report
ABC News | https://abcnews.go.com/International/saudi-arabia-executed-record-number-prisoners-2019-report/story?id=68250502, January 14, 2020
Death Sentence Overturned for Pervez Musharraf, Ex-Leader of Pakistan
The New York Times | https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/13/world/asia/pervez-musharraf-pakistan-death-sentence.html, January 13, 2020
Japan executes foreigner for first time in a decade
Independent | https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/first-foreigner-execution-decade-japan-wei-wei-china-a9260671.html, December 26, 2019
The Khashoggi verdict is exactly what impunity looks like. It must be denounced.
Agnes Callamard, Opinions, Washington Post | https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-khashoggi-verdict-is-exactly-what-impunity-looks-like-it-must-be-denounced/2019/12/23/60b5226c-25cc-11ea-ad73-2, December 24, 2019
5 foreigners in drug case could face death in Indonesia
Inquirer.net | https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1202995/5-foreigners-in-drug-case-could-face-death-in-indonesia?utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#Echobox=1576715552, December 18, 2019
Pervez Musharraf: Pakistan ex-leader sentenced to death for treason
BBC News | https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50819772, December 17, 2019
Botswana urged to abolish death penalty after latest execution
The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/09/botswana-urged-to-abolish-death-penalty-after-latest-execution, December 09, 2019
I Oversaw Executions. We Cannot Resume the Federal Death Penalty
New York Times | https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/04/opinion/federal-death-penalty-execution.html, December 04, 2019
Americans Now Support Life in Prison Over Death Penalty
Gallup News | https://news.gallup.com/poll/268514/americans-support-life-prison-death-penalty.aspx, November 25, 2019
UN criticizes Irans use of death penalty against minors
DW | https://www.dw.com/en/un-criticizes-irans-use-of-death-penalty-against-minors/a-50959211, October 24, 2019
The Death Penalty for Drugs: What Public Opinion Surveys in Asia Teach Us
Giada Girelli, Filter Mag | https://filtermag.org/death-penalty-drugs-public-opinion-asia/, October 17, 2019
Malaysia: Unfair trials, secretive hangings and petty drug convictions reveal ‘cruel injustice’ of the death penalty
Amnesty International | https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/10/malaysia-unfair-trials-secretive-hangings-petty-drug-convictions-cruel-injustice-death-penalty/, October 10, 2019
Against the death penalty: barrister Julian McMahon
ABC Radio | https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/julian-mcmahon-against-capital-punishment/11323694, July 25, 2019
Malaysia’s repeal of death penalty opens deep wounds, including that of Mongolian model murder
The Independent|http://theindependent.sg/malaysias-repeal-of-death-penalty-opens-deep-wounds-including-that-of-mongolian-model-murder/, July 09, 2019
Why is Sri Lanka reinstating death penalty?
DW|https://www.dw.com/en/why-is-sri-lanka-reinstating-death-penalty/a-49469184, July 07, 2019
Debate on death penalty not very vigorous 1 year after Aum executions
Japan Today|https://japantoday.com/category/crime/Debate-on-death-penalty-not-very-vigorous-1-year-after-AUM-executions, July 06, 2019
Prosecutor won’t seek death penalty in death of grandmother
News 4 Tucson|https://kvoa.com/news/2019/07/06/prosecutor-wont-seek-death-penalty-in-death-of-grandmother-2/, July 06, 2019
SC issues Interim Order against death penalty
Daily FT|http://www.ft.lk/top-story/SC-issues-Interim-Order-against-death-penalty/26-681423, July 06, 2019
Latter-day Saint Church defends involvement in death penalty case
Fox13 Salt Lake City|https://fox13now.com/2019/07/06/latter-day-saint-church-defends-involvement-in-death-penalty-case/, July 06, 2019
Death penalty debate remains muted in Japan 1 year after AUM executions
Kyodo News|https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2019/07/ac82c329cc50-debate-on-death-penalty-not-spirited-1-year-after-aum-executions.html, July 05, 2019
Source: Govt will not table Bill to abolish death penalty this Parliament meeting
The Star|https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2019/07/05/source-govt-will-not-table-bill-to-abolish-death-penalty-this-parliament-meeting/#AutEm2wGijJmcWeJ.99, July 05, 2019
The murder was caught on surveillance video. The accused now faces death if convicted
Miami Herald|https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/crime/article232314222.html, July 05, 2019
Sri Lanka- Supreme Court issues interim order against death penalty
MenaFN|https://menafn.com/1098726786/Sri-Lanka-Supreme-Court-issues-interim-order-against-death-penalty, July 05, 2019
Jury to consider death penalty in Chinese scholar killing
Federal News Network|https://federalnewsnetwork.com/u-s-news/2019/07/jury-to-consider-death-penalty-in-chinese-scholar-killing/, July 05, 2019
As Malaysia eyes death penalty repeal, Al Jazeera documentary explores dilemma of capital punishment
Malay Mail|https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2019/07/04/as-malaysia-eyes-death-penalty-repeal-al-jazeera-documentary-explores-dilem/1768271, July 04, 2019
Kentucky judge declares death penalty protocol unconstitutional
Crux Now|https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2019/07/04/kentucky-judge-declares-death-penalty-protocol-unconstitutional/, July 04, 2019
Jose Martinez, The Hit Man Who Confessed To Killing Three Dozen People, Avoids The Death Penalty
BuzzFeed News|https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jessicagarrison/jose-martinez-the-hitman-who-confessed-to-killing-three, July 03, 2019
Merced County DA is seeking the death penalty. And it could get costly, experts say
The Merced Sunstar|https://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/local/crime/article232240867.html, July 03, 2019
Activists Hold Annual Fast Outside Supreme Court to Protest Death Penalty
Spektrum News|https://spectrumnews1.com/ky/lexington/news/2019/07/02/death-penalty-protest-in-washington, July 02, 2019
Kentucky judge declares states death penalty protocol unconstitutional
The Courier Journal|https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/2019/07/02/death-penalty-protocol-struck-down-kentucky-judge/1634299001/, July 02, 2019
Lawmakers vote to substantially limit Oregon’s death penalty
Oregon Live|https://www.oregonlive.com/politics/2019/06/lawmakers-vote-to-substantially-limit-oregons-death-penalty.html, June 29, 2019
Abolish the Death Penalty?
New York Times|https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/22/opinion/letters/death-penalty.html, June 22, 2019
GEORGIA PREPARES TO CARRY OUT THE 1,500TH EXECUTION IN THE U.S. SINCE 1976
The Intercept|https://theintercept.com/2019/06/18/georgia-execution-death-row/, June 18, 2019
In Los Angeles, only people of color are sentenced to death
The Guardian|https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/18/los-angeles-death-penalty-sentences-jackie-lacey, June 18, 2019
Debunking the Court’s Latest Death-Penalty Obsession
The Atlantic|https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/supreme-court-defends-death-penalty-again/591682/, June 17, 2019
Poll finds Californians support the death penalty — and Newsom’s moratorium on executions
The LA Times|https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-california-death-penalty-poll-20190617-story.html, June 17, 2019
Using Saudi death penalty vs. children is barbaric
CNN|https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/17/opinions/saudi-death-penalty-children-murtaja-qureiris-coogle/index.html, June 17, 2019
Reader reluctantly accepts governor’s death penalty moratorium
The LA Times|https://www.latimes.com/socal/burbank-leader/opinion/tn-blr-me-letters-to-the-editor-20190614-story.html, June 14, 2019
Saudi Teenager Faces Death Sentence for Acts When He Was 10
New York Times|https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/09/world/middleeast/saudi-teenager-death-sentence.html, June 09, 2019
GOP Lawmakers Are Quietly Turning Against the Death Penalty
The Atlantic|https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/06/new-hampshire-helped-abolish-death-penalty/590803/, June 07, 2019
Death knell: taking a stand to abolish capital punishment
Monash University | https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2019/02/26/1373504/fighting-to-abolish-capital-punishment, February 26, 2019
Germany abolishes death penalty in public vote
Independent | https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/germany-abolishes-death-penalty-hesse-state-capital-punishment-vote-referendum-a8645036.html, November 21, 2018
Pope Francis: ‘death penalty inadmissable’
Vatican News | https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2018-08/pope-francis-cdf-ccc-death-penalty-revision-ladaria.html, August 02, 2018
One Test Could Exonerate Him. Why Wont California Do It?
The New York Times|https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/opinion/sunday/death-penalty.html, May 17, 2018

USA

One Test Could Exonerate Him. Why Wont California Do It?

May 17, 2018, The New York Times

Republican and Democratic politicians alike — including the state’s former attorney general Kamala Harris, now running for president — refused for years to allow advanced DNA testing in Cooper’s case, even though his lawyers would have paid for it. (Harris has apologized and says she now favors testing.) This summer crucial evidence from Cooper’s case is finally being subjected to that testing, 36 years after the murders. We may know the results by September.

DNA testing accounts for many of the 165 exonerations and prison releases because of dubious evidence since 1973, by the count of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Usually, though, there isn’t DNA available that can be tested to determine guilt or innocence. As in the Clifford Williams case, it’s more murky. The crucial evidence in his conviction came from an eyewitness who may have been a pathological liar.

But let’s be clear: The great majority of people executed are guilty. They have frequently killed with the utmost savagery.

Scotty Morrow, a black man from Georgia, indisputably committed a brutal murder in 1994. He fought with his ex-girlfriend, Barbara Ann Young, and, as her 5-year-old son watched, shot her in the head and killed her.

Morrow also shot dead another woman in the house, Tonya Woods, and shot a third woman, LaToya Horne, in the face. Horne was able to stagger down the road before collapsing. She suffered permanent injuries.

Not surprisingly, Morrow was sentenced to die — but let me throw in a bit of complexity.

Morrow grew up in a violent home where he was raped and beaten as a child, and he never received mental health support to deal with his trauma; that justifies nothing but may help explain something. He desperately wanted to reconcile with Young, and when told that she had been exploiting him for money while she waited for her “real man” to return from prison, he “just snapped,” as he put it. After the murders, he prepared to commit suicide but was arrested; he then prayed daily for 25 years for the families of the women he had killed.

An undated booking photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows Scotty Morrow, a death row inmate.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

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An undated booking photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows Scotty Morrow, a death row inmate.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Rarely in my career as a prosecutor and a judge did I witness this level of remorse and acceptance of responsibility,” reflected Judge Wendy Shoob, one of the judges who dealt with Morrow’s appeals over two decades. The only disciplinary report against him in a quarter-century in prison was for intervening in a fight to protect an inmate who was being stabbed with a shank. Several correctional officers wrote letters appealing that his life be spared.

“Scotty Morrow is literally the only inmate I would do this for,” said a correctional officer with 16 years in law enforcement, Nathan Adkerson. Sgt. Tajuana Burns described him as “just a really nice man.” Lindsey Veal Jr., a mental health counselor, said Morrow “actually makes the prison safer,” and added: “There are very few inmates I can call fully rehabilitated. But, without question, Scotty is one of them.”

William L. Buchanan, a psychologist who worked with Morrow, recalled that one correctional officer “looked me straight in the eyes and stated to me, ‘This is the best man in the world.’”

Yet in the end the State of Georgia did with meticulous planning what Morrow had done impulsively in a spasm of fury. It executed him last month by lethal injection. In his last moments in the execution chamber, Morrow apologized again to the families of the women he had killed, adding to the 20 witnesses: “I’m truly sorry for all that happened. I hope that you all recover and have healing.”

Was the man strapped down on a gurney truly the same person as the enraged brute who had shot dead Young and Woods 25 years earlier?

The death penalty has been applied to at least 222 crimes in the Anglo-American legal system, including marrying a Jew and stealing a rabbit. For a time in America, stealing grapes was punishable by death. So was witchcraft, as we know from the Salem trials.

For centuries executions were public affairs. The last public execution in the United States was in August 1936 in Owensboro, Ky. Perhaps 20,000 people gathered to see a black man, Rainey Bethea, 22, hanged for the rape and murder of a white woman. The carnival atmosphere and “hanging parties” led Kentucky to ban public executions, although public lynchings continued.

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Rainey Bethea with Sheriff’s deputies as they escort him from Louisville, Ky., to his public execution in Owensboro, Ky, in 1936.CreditThe Messenger-Inquirer, via Associated Press

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Perhaps 20,000 people gathered to witness the hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Ky., in 1936.CreditNewsmakers/Getty Images

The argument for public punishment was that it deters crime, and even today a common argument in favor of executions is that through deterrence they save the lives of innocent people. Is that true?

One 2003 study purported to find that each execution deterred five murders, while opponents of the death penalty sometimes argue the opposite, that executions brutalize society and lead to additional murders. Statisticians and criminologists have studied this issue carefully for decades, and the general conclusion is that executions have no greater deterrent effect than long prison sentences.

Murder rates are actually lower in states without the death penalty than in those with it. Some jurisdictions have periodically banned the death penalty and then brought it back, and this back-and-forth seems to have zero impact on homicide rates. Scholars have also examined whether there is a decline in homicides after well-publicized death verdicts or executions; there is not.

One rigorous 2012 study published by the American Economic Review found no clear deterrent effect and noted that depending on the statistical model used, one could conclude that each execution saves 21 lives or causes an additional 63 murders. Note also that a 2008 poll of leading criminologists found that only 5 percent believed that capital punishment was an effective deterrent; 88 percent believed the opposite.

Meanwhile, the experts polled in that survey agreed that death penalty debates distract legislatures from policies that actually would reduce crime — like lead removal, early childhood programs, career academies, job training, gang violence initiatives like Cure Violence, and programs for at-risk young people like Becoming a Man.

Let’s also examine another argument of death penalty proponents: that it’s not worth spending hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting brutal killers for the rest of their lives: Execute them and use the savings for better purposes!

This argument, too, is groundless: Capital punishment is far more expensive than life prison terms. This is because pretrial preparations, jury selection and appeals are all more expensive in capital cases, and death row confinement is more costly than incarceration for the general prison population. One 2017 study by several criminologists found that on average, each death sentence costs taxpayers $700,000 more than life imprisonment.

“It is a simple fact that seeking the death penalty is more expensive,” concluded that inquiry, by Peter A. Collins of Seattle University and colleagues. “There is not one credible study, to our knowledge, that presents evidence to the contrary.”

One reason death penalty cases are expensive is that the defense is given more time and resources to prepare the case, and appeals are automatic. So you would think that innocent people are less likely to be put to death than to serve life sentences.

That may be true. Defense lawyers grimly joke that if you’re falsely convicted of a crime, it’s best to be sentenced to death — because then at least you will get pro bono lawyers and media scrutiny that may increase the prospect of exoneration. Researchers find that an exoneration is 130 times more likely for a death sentence than for other sentences.

Yet if death penalties get unusual scrutiny, there are countervailing forces. Researchers find that juries are more likely to recommend the death penalty for defendants who are perceived as showing a lack of remorse — and innocent people don’t display remorse. A second factor is that death sentences are often sought after particularly brutal crimes that create great pressure on the police to find the culprits.

In 1989, for example, after five black teenagers in New York City were arrested in the rape and beating of a white investment banker who became known as the Central Park Jogger, Donald Trump bought full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty. The teenagers were later exonerated when DNA evidence and a confession by another man showed that they were innocent of that crime.

Donald Trump placed this full-page ad in The New York Times and other newspapers after the Central Park Jogger rape.

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Donald Trump placed this full-page ad in The New York Times and other newspapers after the Central Park Jogger rape.

One peer-reviewed study suggested that at least 4.1 percent of those sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. With more than 2,700 Americans on death row, that would imply that more than 110 innocent people are awaiting execution.

The Supreme Court in 1976 restored the death penalty partly because it was confident that safeguards — such as meticulous rules about when death penalties could be applied — would eliminate the arbitrary application of capital punishment. In fact, “its defining feature is still its arbitrariness,” noted Jill Benton, an Atlanta lawyer who defends capital punishment cases.

Racial bias affects every aspect of the criminal justice system, and researchers have found that black defendants not only do worse than white defendants, but also that blacks with dark complexions fare worse than those with light ones. Of prisoners now on death row, 42 percent are black, 42 percent are white, and most of the remainder are Hispanic.

Bias is not just found in judges and prosecutors. In Washington State, researchers found that juries were four times as likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant as for a similar white defendant. The same study also underscored how random capital punishment is. In Thurston County in Washington, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 67 percent of aggravated murder cases; in Okanogan County, 130 miles away, zero percent. Over all in America, 2 percent of counties account for a majority of death penalty cases.

Researchers have found that whether Texas prosecutors seek the death penalty depends partly on how The Houston Chronicle covers the case. They have also found that if a jury has a majority of women, it is less likely to recommend death.

Justice is supposed to be blind. But it is not supposed to be random.

Aside from deterring murders and saving money, a third common argument for the death penalty is that it is appropriate retribution for a heinous crime, a way for a community to rise up and express its revulsion for some brutal act. We dishonor victims, so the argument goes, if we simply lock away a monster.

This is an argument that cannot be countered with data, for it rests on values. It has to be said, though, that the history of executions as an expression of a community’s moral values is not an inspiring one. Such values-based arguments have been made through history for stoning adulterers and burning witches — and, in Japan in the 1600s, boiling Christians alive.

Just this spring, the small Southeast Asian sultanate of Brunei defended the stoning to death of gays, adulterers and heretics as an expression of community values intended “to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals.”

Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who was the longest-serving Republican in congressional history, used to boast that as a judge in the 1930s and 1940s, he had sentenced four men to death; he saw capital punishment as reflecting community values and had no regrets, for the men got what they deserved.

A South Carolina lawyer, David Bruck, looked into those four death sentences. Three involved black men: one who was deranged from syphilis, one who was accused of rape by a white woman but had many alibi witnesses and may have been innocent, and one who in self-defense shot an armed white man who attacked him. The fourth was a white man who, in a rage, killed his girlfriend.

At the time, it may have seemed to Thurmond and the white community self-evident that these four executions were righteous. Today the first three seem hideous examples of racist injustice. Our standards and perspectives have changed — but what is unique about the death penalty is that a person can never be un-executed.

Today the Supreme Court is caught in a bitter feud over the death penalty, with a conservative majority approving executions and fretting about “unjustified delay” in carrying them out, as Justice Neil M. Gorsuch put it in April. In her dissent in that case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued, “There are higher values than ensuring that executions run on time.”

The result of this division is that the court is unlikely to constrain executions significantly. Yet there is some recognition that the system is faulty, and capital punishment is becoming more rare. In 1998, there were 295 death sentences in this country; in 2018, just 42. In California, which has the largest death row, Gov. Gavin Newsom has bravely declared a moratorium on executions.

Kenneth Reams in 2014.

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Kenneth Reams in 2014.

The case of Kenneth Reams, a man on death row in Arkansas, encapsulates the cruelty and absurdity of this system. It “shows clearly all the problems with a democratic society using the death penalty,” said George H. Kendall, a lawyer who is helping Reams challenge his sentence.

Reams was a black kid born to an impoverished 15-year-old mom. He had a turbulent childhood, running away from home at 13 and dabbling in juvenile crime. Then at 18 he helped a friend who needed money to pay for his graduation cap and gown: They robbed a white man named Gary Turner at an A.T.M., and the friend shot and killed Turner.

Reams was defended by a part-time lawyer with several hundred other cases and no capital punishment experience, and there were indications that the jury was manipulated to underrepresent African-Americans. In the end, Reams was sentenced to death.

More from the Opinion section on Kenneth Reams.

Opinion

How to Get on Death Row Without Firing a Bullet

May 5, 2016

Last year the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the death penalty for Reams, but he remains on death row pending new hearings and a new sentence. Even if you believe it is appropriate to execute an unarmed robber because his partner shot someone, even if you’re unconcerned by a criminal’s troubled childhood, even if racial manipulation of juries doesn’t bother you, there remains the basic question of what the execution of someone like Reams would accomplish — and whether, more than a quarter-century later, that 18-year-old offender still exists to execute.

“People change,” Kendall told me. “Kenny was a reckless, out-of-control kid who, while barely 18 at the time of the crime, had the mental maturity of a 14-year-old. His maturation had been slowed by years of horrible neglect and abuse.” Behind bars, Reams has grown into an accomplished artist who encourages other prisoners to express themselves through poetry.

That’s something you encounter again and again: People evolve. So because of the glacial pace of “justice,” we sometimes execute a graying, kindly inmate quite different from the violent felon he once was. They may have the same DNA and fingerprints, but their hearts are not the same.

There is no evidence that the death penalty deters. It costs hundreds of thousands of additional dollars per prisoner. It is steeped in caprice, arbitrariness and racial bias. It is fallible — and when it fails, it undermines the legitimacy of our judicial system.

Some day, I believe, Americans will look back at today’s executions just as we now look back at witch burnings and public hangings, and they will ask, What were they thinking?

In Jacksonville, Clifford Williams Jr. is now trying to get used to freedom after 42 years as a convicted murderer. Buddy Schulz, his lawyer, told me what happened when he visited Williams in prison and told him that he would be released.

“He cried for the first 10 minutes,” Schulz recalled. “For the next 10 minutes, he laughed. And finally after 20 minutes, he said, ‘Mr. Buddy, I hope you don’t think me rude, but I’ve got to go to the chapel and thank God.’”

Schulz added: “I’m personally of the opinion that the death penalty serves no purpose whatsoever, and I think it’s immoral. This is an example. The judge imposed it and but for a close decision by the Supreme Court, here would have been an innocent man who would have lost his life.”

I reached out to Henry M. Coxe III, who four decades ago prosecuted the case against Williams and won the death sentence. I figured that he would see the issue differently, but he didn’t. In fact, he was relieved that of the five death sentences he won as a prosecutor, none were ever carried out.

“In hindsight, I don’t think the death penalty serves a meaningful purpose,” he told me.

Williams is now living with his daughter in Jacksonville, taking “one day at a time,” he told me. The fact that he knew he was innocent made it immeasurably harder, he said, but he added, “I was trusting God would deal with it.”

Calm and mild-mannered, he didn’t want to talk about his decades in prison. “It wasn’t a nice time,” he explained mildly. I told him that I was surprised he didn’t sound bitter. Williams laughed. “Well, I feel a little bit bitter,” he said.

I asked about the death penalty, and there was a long silence. I thought he hadn’t heard, so I asked again, and then I realized that he was struggling with his emotions.

“Too many people,” he said, suddenly sounding exhausted, “are getting the death sentence who don’t deserve it.”



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