Thirty-three years ago today, June 29, 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in a trio of cases, which became collectively known as Furman v. Georgia. In this decision, by a vote of 5 to 4 and based upon nine separate opinions, the Supreme Court ruled death penalty sentences that were: arbitrary; too severe for the crime committed; not more effective than a less severe penalty; or offended society’s sense of justice and violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
As a result, the death penalty statutes in 40 states were voided and the death sentences of 629 death row inmates were commuted.
To those in the abolitionist movement, this decision was a remarkable but, unfortunately, short-lived victory. Just four years later, in 1976, the Supreme Court issued decisions in a separate trio of cases, collectively referred to as Gregg v. Georgia, granting approval for newly enacted death penalty statutes designed to address the specific constitutional violations identified in Furman v. Georgia.
Today, in our nation, only 12 states – including Minnesota – do not have the death penalty and, internationally, the United States is among a shrinking minority of countries that still practice the death penalty.
The anniversary of Furman v. Georgia offers us an opportunity to examine the death penalty as currently practiced in this country and to reflect upon whether current practices meet the prescribed constitutional standards of that decision.
In death penalty states, only a small number of people convicted of murder receive the death penalty, and their death sentences often appear to be imposed for reasons other than the gravity of their crimes or their individual culpability in those crimes. Three factors alone: racial bias, lack of access to adequate counsel and simple geography seem to influence significantly whether a defendant is sentenced to death.
For example, although only approximately 25 percent of our population are minorities, 43 percent of the people executed since 1976 have been minorities. And, even more disturbingly, the race of the victim seems to play an even greater role than that of the defendant in determining who receives a sentence of death and who does not. While a recent U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that the race of murder victims is evenly divided between whites and blacks at 49 percent each, it also found that 81 percent of the victims were white in cases in which defendants received death sentences.
And, because more than 90 percent of the people on our nation’s death rows were unable to afford private counsel, it is clear that the quality of representation a defendant receives is the most determinative factor in whether that person is sentenced to death.
Moreover, while some variations in death sentences from state to state might be expected, existing regional variations within individual states suggests arbitrariness in application. Although only 9 percent of the murders in Ohio occur in Hamilton County, 25 percent of that state’s death row inmates were convicted and sentenced to death in that same county. And, similarly in Maryland, a disproportionate number of that state’s death row inmates were convicted and sentenced to death for murders that occurred in suburban Baltimore County, even though there were ten times more murders committed in downtown Baltimore.
A thoughtful study of this and other readily available data and reports should give us great pause; we are falling far short of meeting Furman’s standards.
There is overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is arbitrarily and discriminatorily imposed, that it is oftentimes imposed upon defendants who have not committed the most heinous crimes and who are sometimes far less culpable than co-defendants who were not sentenced to death and that the less severe penalty of life in prison without parole is at least as equally effective as the death penalty in protecting us from violent offenders.
Finally, the simple and indisputable fact that 119 innocent
people have been released from death rows in this country since 1972 should deeply offend our sense of justice as a society. While many of those on our nation’s death rows might indeed be guilty, it is likely that some others actually are innocent, and it is certainly more likely than not that we have, in fact, executed innocent men and women. Where is the justice in that?
Kate Krisik is a member of the Board of Directors of Minnesotans Against the Death Penalty. Please send comments to [email protected]