Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

October 1, 2013

WE THE PEOPLE: Deep-sixing the death penalty

By Jeri Abbott
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — Capital punishment has had a varied history in our nation. It has been carried out in different ways down through the years: by rifle squad, noose hanging, gas chamber, electric chair and lethal injection.

Many myths surround the death penalty. One of these, that justice is even-handedly dispensed by the courts, is disproved by the fact that those sentenced to death are disproportionately the poor, people of color, the mentally ill, and those whose victims are white. The myth that the death penalty deters crime is disputed by studies indicating that capital punishment deters no more than other forms of punishment.

Many believe the myth that executions are cheaper than life imprisonment without parole. States are realizing that not only are death penalty trials costly, but that the appeals process that follows adds greatly to the cost, to say nothing of the cost to those who are on death row for ten to twenty years.

Justice, to be meaningful, should be swift and sure. The death penalty is neither, and under our current system drags on and on. Life without parole begins as soon as the victims’ families leave the courtroom and is served outside the spotlight of the news cameras.

The death penalty is an issue that divides our nation. Thirty-two states retain the death penalty while eighteen have abolished it. According to a December 20, 2012 article in USA Today, of those retaining the death penalty, 23 have not used it in ten years, while four states have been responsible for three-fourths of the executions in 2012. These states are Texas, Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

Since 2011 three states—Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland—have abolished capital punishment. And California, with the largest number of death row inmates of all fifty states, has on its November ballot a ban on the death penalty. Tennessee has seventy-nine people presently on death row. It has put to death six prisoners since 1960.

Ten years ago, on October 10, the World Day Against the Death Penalty was inaugurated. Today in many states, groups are working towards the abolition of the death penalty, seeking alternatives to capital punishment. In Tennessee we have Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The exoneration of people wrongly convicted (often with DNA help), the availability of prison terms without parole, and the high cost of capital trials and the appeals process are factors contributing to a decline in the death penalty.

The state of Georgia, where I lived for eight years, has killed fifty-three men since 1983. Many of these men had been on death row for more years than they had been free. At the time of their executions, in the last minutes of their lives, they were given a few moments to speak. What do you suppose they said at such a moment? Here are a few of their last words:

Roosevelt Green, Jr., executed January 9, 1985: “I love the Lord and I hope you love him, too.” (The book “A Lesson Before Dying” tells Green’s story.)

John C. Young, executed March 20, 1985: “The poor...don’t have a chance because the courts don’t really recognize them. People look on them as between human and animals, but we’re all from the same creation... This is the way America will always be... Being born black in America was against me.”

Warren McCleskey, executed September 25, 1991: “I pray that one day this country, which is supposed to be civilized, will abolish barbaric acts such as this death penalty.”

Fred M. Gilreath Jr., executed November 15, 1991: “My God has forgiven me, and I have forgiven all who have done me wrong.”

William M. Mize, executed April 29, 2009: “I’m here because of a travesty of justice.”

Troy A. Davis, executed September 21, 2011: “...I am innocent. The incident that happened that night is not my fault. I did not have a gun... I ask my family and friends to continue this fight. For those about to take my life, God have mercy on your souls. And may God bless your souls.”

(The above quotes appeared in Hospitality, the paper of the Open Door Community in Atlanta.)

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This column is sponsored by Cumberland Countians for Peace and Justice and dedicated by the local writers to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world. Opinions expressed in “Lion and the Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, editor, at 277-5135.