Joseph Wood, convicted of two murders, spent two hours gasping and choking during his execution on July 23. The ancient Romans, who were fond of concocting long and agonizing ways to end lives, would have been proud of it. When Wood finally died, commentary ranged from descriptions of the event as a barbaric disgrace to lamenting that it was not more painful or drawn out.
Support for capital punishment is strong in America, but there are signs that it is waning. According to Pew Research, support peaked at 78 percent in the mid 1990s and has been declining since, now at 55 percent. Over the same period, opposition has climbed from 18 percent to 37 percent. Reasons for this are varied but America’s changing demographic make-up is undoubtedly a factor. White Protestants are the most supportive group, while Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants are most opposed. This is unsurprising since the likelihood of receiving a death sentence is largely determined by the respective races of the victim and the accused in each case. It is a known fact that a black person convicted of killing a while person is more likely to be sentenced to death than a white person convicted of killing anyone. As minorities grow to engulf a larger share of the population, it is reasonable to assume that abolitionist sentiments will become stronger.
Support will doubtless be undermined further by grisly tales of botched executions, that of Mr Wood being the third such fiasco this year. European drug makers have refused to sell their products to the United States for use in executions, resulting in a shortage of drugs needed to administer lethal injections. States now have to choose between either resurrecting even more grisly killing methods, or experimenting with untried chemical concoctions that can lead to the kind of death that could easily be deemed a violation of the US constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Further pressure is being applied because of the length of the appeals process. Cormac Carney, a federal judge, overturned 748 capital sentences and struck down capital punishment in California on July 16 for being too slow and inconsistent. That inmates should spend indefinite time on death row unaware of how along they have to live is a fate that “no rational jury or legislature could ever impose.” Whether the ruling survives appeal remains to be seen, but it is a significant shift.
Abolitionists could also do well to highlight the sheer financial cost of the practice. Because of the heightened security and the laborious appeals process, execution is by far more expensive than imprisonment for life without parole.
However the most potent argument that does not seem to be used is the danger of executing an innocent person. Mike Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for the 1988 presidential election and a former Massachusetts governor, took a hit in his poll numbers when he answered a question about whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, maintaining that he would still oppose it. A better answer would have been to turn the question around and ask how would the questioner feel if a family member were wrongfully executed for a crime they did not commit.
In 1956 a man was shot dead in his home in Georgia in front of his wife who survived the ordeal. When James Foster, an ex-convict, was arrested for a minor unrelated offense a few weeks later, hauled to her house by police, and presented to her in the living room where the horror occurred, she identified him as the killer. Her testimony was seen by the court as more convincing then the numerous alibis that Foster had and he was promptly sentenced to death. Only after Foster’s tenacious lawyer got a lucky break and tracked down the real killer and convinced him to confess was Foster spared a gruesome appointment with the electric chair. There are plenty more cases like that in American history.
Death penalty advocates would argue that modern forensic scientific techniques such as DNA fingerprinting mean that wrongful convictions are less likely. However this is disingenuous. DNA can appear at a crime scene for a multitude of reasons, and the accuracy of the process has no bearing on the circumstances of the case. There is no guarantee that all evidence will only point in the direction of the truth. American faith in technology as the answer to all problems is misplaced. Forensic science will always be prone to human error no matter how sophisticated it becomes, and the television crime show experience of the detective always getting the culprit before the hour is up is far removed from reality.
The trend in the developed world has long been towards abolition of this outdated and ineffective punishment. America, the only developed western country that still kills its own people, may be behind the rest of the world in progress towards a more evolved system of justice, but it is on its way.