The Death Penalty: Where Cowardice Meets Cruelty

The death penalty system involves various individuals and stages from the moment a death sentence is handed down to the execution of the condemned. The sentencing judge, the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, the jury, and the appellate judges are all involved in the initial stages of the process. The convicted person is then transferred to death row, where they await execution for years or even decades. During this time, the condemned live in almost complete isolation, with little contact with the outside world, and are forced to confront the reality of their impending death. Family members and loved ones may visit, but the visits are infrequent, often restricted, and emotionally draining. The mental anguish, fear, and despair that the condemned must endure are unimaginable, and many experience severe mental health issues as a result. Despite the complexity of the death penalty system, the human toll it takes on the condemned, their families, and society is immeasurable.

But what about the responsibility of the key actors involved in this barbaric act? The judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, jurors, prison staff, and executioners all play a critical role in the death penalty system, yet they often absolve themselves of responsibility for the condemned person’s fate. Instead, the burden falls on the condemned and their families to bear the weight of the punishment. This is a deeply troubling aspect of the death penalty system, as it perpetuates a cycle of violence and places the blame for the punishment on those least equipped to handle it. Those who are involved in the death penalty system must recognize the gravity of their actions and the toll they take on individuals and society as a whole. Only by holding these key actors accountable for their role in the system can we begin to create a more just and humane approach to punishment.

Judges who sentence individuals to death bear a significant responsibility for the outcome of the death penalty system. However, they often do not have to live with the consequences of their actions. By the time a person is executed, the judge who sentenced them may have moved on to other cases, retired, or even passed away. Yet their decision to impose the death penalty has ended a human life and left that person at the mercy of a system in which they have almost no chance of surviving. This lack of accountability is deeply concerning and undermines the legitimacy of the justice system. Judges must recognize the gravity of their decisions and the profound impact they have on individuals and society as a whole. They cannot simply wash their hands of the consequences of their actions and must take responsibility for the role they play in the death penalty system.

For those dedicated attorneys who do put their all into every case, the emotional toll can be overwhelming, as they fight tooth and nail for every scrap of evidence that might save their client’s life. But for too many others, the grind of a system that seems stacked against them wears away at their passion and commitment, until they become mere cogs in the machine. We cannot ignore the reality that, even in the face of such overwhelming odds, every person involved in the death penalty system has a responsibility to do their utmost to ensure that justice is done, and that lives are not taken.

The statistics below show just how significant the responsibility of capital defense attorneys is, and yet many seem to fall short in assuming the full weight of the consequences of their actions:

  • According to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 20% of death row inmates are represented by attorneys who have been disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their career.
  • A survey of death penalty defense attorneys conducted by the American Bar Association found that nearly 75% of them believed that the quality of representation in capital cases is inadequate.
  • The same survey also found that more than half of the defense attorneys reported not having enough time to adequately prepare for their client’s case, while nearly 70% said they lacked sufficient funding to hire necessary experts or investigators.
  • In a review of death penalty cases in the United States from 1973 to 2004, the Equal Justice Initiative found that inadequate legal representation was a contributing factor in 75% of the cases that resulted in wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations.
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In the case of governors, it’s even more disheartening. Governors have the power to grant clemency or stay an execution, yet many fail to exercise this power. By signing a death warrant, they essentially become the executioner themselves. They bear the responsibility of taking a human life, but neither society nor the system holds them accountable for this premeditated murder.

It’s appalling to see how governors who sign death warrants don’t seem to be impacted by the consequences of their actions. They are not the ones who will be standing in front of the condemned person’s family and friends, witnessing the anguish and pain caused by their decision. They are not the ones who will have to live with the knowledge that they played a part in taking someone’s life. And yet, they continue to sign these death warrants with little regard for the consequences. The weight of this responsibility should be felt by each and every governor who signs a death warrant, but unfortunately, that is not the case.

Indeed, some governors seem to be more concerned about their popularity than the consequences of their actions, not only on the individuals they order to be executed, but also on their families and on our society as a whole. The political pressure to appear “tough on crime” and to satisfy public demand for retribution can often outweigh any moral or ethical considerations. This leads to a disturbing trend where governors who grant clemency or commute a death sentence are often seen as “weak” or “soft,” while those who carry out executions are applauded for their “strength” and “resolve,” regardless of the actual impact on the people involved. It is a sad reality that the death penalty is more of a political tool than a means of justice, and that the lives of individuals are sacrificed for the sake of political expediency.

It is important to remember that all the actors involved in the death penalty system are human beings, just like you and me. They participate in the legal murder of other human beings in the name of justice. In some cases, such as in Florida’s death penalty system, there are individuals who take on an even greater level of cruelty by willingly and consciously seeking to take another person’s life. As sister Helen Prejean said: “Killing people is wrong. This is something that we are taught from childhood. Yet, we do it anyway, and then we try to justify it with laws and rituals and ceremonies that we’ve created to make it palatable. But deep down, we all know that killing is wrong, and we carry that guilt with us forever.” 

It is this willingness to kill in cold blood that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the death penalty system. I don’t believe that the individuals I am about to mention have any form of conscience regarding their abominable acts. They are simply the true monsters, fitting a portrait that the death penalty system unjustly paints of those it condemns. 

Mary, Jena, Stacy, Kevin, Max, Daniel… These are ordinary citizens without criminal records, model citizens in appearance, just like you and me. The only difference is that these Florida residents are on the volunteer list to become executioners. To be paid $150, one of them will be selected to inject the lethal cocktail that will take the life of a death row inmate. How can someone want to take the life of a human being to the point of signing up on a list to become a future murderer? No matter how you disguise it as a service to the nation, revenge on behalf of the victims’ families, or an act of bravery, it is nothing of the sort. This act is simply first-degree murder, a cold, calculated, and premeditated murder, the very act for which the death row inmates are lying on this gurney and about to be murdered by one of these volunteers.

Indeed, the meager compensation given to these volunteers for taking the life of another human being is a clear indication that their motivation is not based on any sense of duty or honor. The $150 fee they receive is hardly enough to cover basic expenses, let alone provide for their families. It is clear that these individuals are motivated solely by the opportunity to take the life of another human being with impunity, and that they are willing to do so for a pittance. This is not justice, but rather a barbaric and immoral practice that has no place in a civilized society.

The same system that condemns mentally ill, traumatized, drug-addicted individuals as dangerous, cold-blooded murderers who threaten society, also protects these volunteers with laws that guarantee their anonymity. According to Florida law 922.105 , “the identity of execution team members and other personnel who participate in or administer the execution of a death sentence is confidential and exempt from public records requirements.” This is a system that hides the truth and protects the executioners, who are essentially hired killers for a sick and twisted system. The state disguises these murders as acts of justice, while in reality they are nothing more than legal, premeditated killings that do nothing to make our society safer. It is time to acknowledge the true nature of the death penalty and its corrupting influence on all those who participate in it, from the judges who impose the sentences to the executioners who carry them out.

The death penalty is a stain on our moral conscience. It’s time to abolish it once and for all!

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.
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