Claudine Clark

50 Years Later: The Death Penalty and Its Failures

In 1972, Furman v. Georgia was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. In this case, the plaintiff, William Henry Furman, had been sentenced to death for burglarizing a house and killing the owner when he was caught. Furman argued, however, that the death penalty as applied in Georgia, and throughout the country, was unconstitutional because it was arbitrary and discriminatory.The Supreme Court finally accepted Furman’s argument and in a landmark decision, the Court declared that the death penalty as applied was indeed unconstitutional.

There are 4 main reasons surrounding this decision:

  1. The death penalty was applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner: 

The Supreme Court found that the death penalty was applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner based on factors such as race, class, geography and gender. This violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

2. The death penalty was cruel and inhumane: 

The Supreme Court also found that the death penalty was cruel and inhumane because of the methods of execution used, such as the electric chair, gas chamber, and hanging. The Court found that these methods violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

3. The death penalty did not serve as a deterrent to crime: 

The Supreme Court found that the death penalty was not effective in deterring crime, contrary to the claims of death penalty advocates. Therefore, the death penalty was not justified as a deterrent to serious crime.

4. The death penalty was incompatible with societal change: 

The Supreme Court also emphasized that the death penalty was incompatible with the evolution of American society and the increasingly high ethical standards for the treatment of offenders. As a result, the death penalty is no longer acceptable as a punishment for serious crimes.

Pixabay/copyright free

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Fifty years ago, this issue was already raised and discussed, but we note with sadness and consternation that the arguments presented at that time have not changed things and that the system is still flawed. In this trial, which is that of one of the worst societal phenomena in the history of our country, we are all jurors. Here is an illustration of the fact that nothing is different today : 

First, the problem of the arbitrary and discriminatory application of the death penalty persists. Recent statistics show that racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty are still very present. For example, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, in 2020, blacks accounted for nearly 34% of those executed, while they represented only 13% of the U.S. population. In addition, cases of wrongful death sentences have been widely documented, such as the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man sentenced to death for setting off an arson attack that killed his three children in 1991, when recent evidence suggests he was likely innocent. Unfortunately, this problem persists despite attempts to reform and regulate the use of the death penalty. For example, the Supreme Court acknowledged in 2019 that the court’s decision to sentence a black inmate to death in Florida was influenced by racial bias. In sum, it is clear that the death penalty is still applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner in many U.S. states. Racial and social disparities persist, and cases of miscarriage of justice are unfortunately not uncommon. 

Second, the death penalty continues to be problematic because of the cruelty inherent in the execution of death row inmates. Despite so-called attempts to find more “humane” methods of execution, such as lethal injection, cases of botched executions and the suffering of the condemned have been reported repeatedly. For example, in 2014, a death row inmate in Oklahoma agonized for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack following a failed lethal injection. In addition, the death penalty is often imposed on individuals with mental health issues, raising concerns about their ability to understand and cope with the nature of their sentence. Indeed, according to a study by the American Bar Association, more than half of those executed in the United States were mentally ill at the time of their sentencing. The issue of the cruelty of the death penalty is often linked to concerns about the quality of legal services provided to defendants, particularly those who are indigent and cannot afford quality defense counsel. In many cases, defense attorneys lack adequate resources or training to provide effective representation, which can lead to miscarriages of justice and unjust convictions. In sum, the death penalty remains cruel and inhumane. 

Now, the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent to crime. This claim has been confirmed by numerous studies, including those conducted by government agencies such as the US General Accounting Office (GAO). In fact, states that have abolished the death penalty have seen their crime rates decline or remain stable, as have those that have retained it. For example, New York State does not use the death penalty, but the crime rate has continued to decline over the years. In 2019, New York State’s crime rate was the lowest on record since data collection began in 1975. Similarly, the United States has seen a steady decline in crime since the 1990s, although many states abolished the death penalty during that time. In addition, many death row inmates committed their crimes in a state of mental distress or despair, and the threat of the death penalty was not enough to deter them from committing these crimes. For example, Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people in 1995, stated that he was not deterred by the death penalty and considered his death an “honorable exit.” Ultimately, the death penalty does nothing to prevent crime, it only punishes with barbarity those who have already committed crimes.

Finally, the death penalty is no longer compatible with the evolution of American society and the increasingly high ethical standards for the treatment of offenders. It has become clear that the death penalty is inhumane, cruel and often misapplied. Most developed countries have already abolished the death penalty, recognizing that it has no place in a civilized society. Many U.S. states have abolished the death penalty in recent years, recognizing that the practice is inconsistent with the increasingly high ethical and moral standards of our society. We must continue to advance this evolution as a society, ending this barbaric and inhumane practice that runs counter to our core values.

It is on the basis of a system recognized as unconstitutional, that the United States of America has relied, ladies and gentlemen, to execute more than 1500 people since 1976, when the Supreme Court ended the 1963 moratorium. That’s 1500 families pulverized by what our country calls justice but which is nothing but a massacre! Traumatized, broken, mentally ill, poor or drug addicted men and women are being kept in unsanitary slaughterhouses. Depriving them of the little human decency guaranteed to them by our constitution, no matter what their faults, no matter what their race or social status. 

But here’s the thing, when you become an inmate, you become the property of the state and when you become a death row inmate you are reduced to nothing. First by the judicial system that makes mincemeat of what you are, promising you a fair trial and in reality offering you a reality TV farce. Then the Department of Corrections will break you, physically and morally, how? By throwing you in a cage, facing yourself, forcing you to relive every day the hellish and traumatic journey that brought you here. By not offering you any help for possible substance addiction, nor any rehabilitation program. Because while on the pretty files presented every year at budget time things look good, anyone who is around these places knows that they are not. Abusing you verbally, physically and psychologically. Feeding you food that wouldn’t even be given to stray dogs. Destroying what little family you have left by enslaving your loved ones for financial gain and causing them so much stress that they themselves will lose life expectancy! It is proven by statistics that the relatives of people incarcerated for long sentences including the death penalty lose an average of 2.6 years of life expectancy. And to end this journey in hell for 10, 20, 30 sometimes more than 40 years, they will lay you on a gurney, in a gas chamber or along a wall to kill you. Their little merry-go-round costs taxpayers millions every year, each death penalty inmate costs approximately $1.12 million more than a general population inmate incarcerated for life. They will then make a public spectacle of your suffering and that of your family, illustrating once again the indecency and lack of consideration for your existence and more broadly for human existence. 

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to consider these arguments, which were raised 50 years ago and are still relevant today, when you decide whether you are for or against the death penalty. The death penalty is neither just nor effective, and it must be abolished. We need a more humane and ethical approach to punishing criminals and protecting society. 

I will ask you one last question, ladies and gentlemen, is this the world you want to live in?

About the Author
Claudine Clark is president/founder of the French Coalition Against the Death Penalty. An abolitionist, paralegal and human rights consultant, her passion stems from her origins as the granddaughter of Warsaw ghetto survivors. She defends human values of forgiveness and tolerance through numerous actions.
Related Topics
Related Posts