Twenty-seven states across America still have the death penalty.
They are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky. Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
The latest execution took place in Missouri just two days ago when Ernest Lee Johnson was executed by lethal injection at 6:11 p.m despite objections from many – including the Pope – citing his intellectual disabilities.
For many critics of the United States’ policy on the death penalty, one of the most troubling aspects is how inconsistently it’s applied.
While capital punishment is used in more than half of the country’s states, in addition to the federal death penalty, the likelihood of an execution actually taking place, and the potential for a prolonged, painful or inhumane death if it does, vary wildly.
For example, death by firing squad is a possibility in South Carolina, while in Texas it may be a lethal injection of pentobarbital, which experts say can cause “excruciating pain”, such as in the case of the execution of Wesley Purkey in 2020.
Across the 27 states that still use capital punishment, lethal injection is by far the most common method. But many pharmaceutical companies refuse to supply the required drugs, which has led to states authorising deaths that are potentially far less humane.
This has been the case in South Carolina, which in May instituted a law requiring death row inmates to choose between being put to death by electric chair or firing squad. They can only choose lethal injection “if it is available at the time of election”, and it currently is not.
Electrocution takes place in eight states and gas chambers are authorised in seven. Three states – Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington – still permit hanging. Four states – Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah, and South Carolina – allow for death by firing squads.
The frequency of people put to death is also markedly different across the country. Texas has put 573 people to death since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Virginia comes in at a distant second, with 113 executions in that time period, followed by Oklahoma with 112, Florida with 99, and Missouri with 90.
Exacerbating the inconsistency, federal death penalties may or may not be carried out at all, depending on the views of the president or attorney general of the time. Under the Trump administration, the use of federal executions skyrocketed, with 13 inmates put to death during Mr Trump’s final year in office – an astonishing figure given that there had not been a single federal execution since 2003.
Federal death row and a moratorium
Many argue that the constitutional concept of equal protection under the law is deeply compromised under this system. Reflecting the growing discomfort in the United States with the current state of affairs, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a moratorium in July this year on federal executions while ordering a review of the Justice Department’s policies.
In a statement, Mr Garland said, “The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” adding, “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”
In a memo to the Justice Department, he addressed the whiplash policy change by saying: “Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases. Those weighty concerns deserve careful study and evaluation by lawmakers. In the meantime, the Department must take care to scrupulously maintain our commitment to fairness and humane treatment.”
As it stands, that leaves the eventual fate of the 45 prisoners currently on federal death row hanging in the balance.
Attitudes are changing in some states against the death penalty.
A bill in Utah’s State Legislature would ‘repeal and replace’ the practice with Governor Spencer Cox admitting he may not block it.
“I’ve been supportive of the death penalty in the past but certainly I’ve had occasion to reevaluate... my feelings about the death penalty,” Gov. Cox said last week. “I think certainly anytime we take a life, especially government taking a life, it’s a very conservative thing to do to pause and make sure we get that one right.”
The move would remove executions and replace them with a 45 years to life prison sentence. The state currently has seven prisoners on death row who would still face death even if the bill is carried.
In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine has delayed the four executions scheduled in the state until next year.
He stated “ongoing problems involving the willingness of pharmaceutical suppliers to provide drugs” as the reason for the delay while a bill commute the death sentence across the state is still being discussed.
Racist, ineffective, expensive and error-prone
The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list.
We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.
Writing for The Independent today, the group’s CEO Celia Ouellette makes it plain why the death penalty has to stop.
“The statistics that exemplify the death penalty’s glaring flaws bear repeating here. It’s racist – you are four times more likely to receive a death sentence if you are Black than if you are white, for an equivalent crime. It’s ineffective – states that practice it have higher murder rates. It’s incredibly expensive – to execute someone costs $2 million more than a life sentence. It’s unacceptably error-prone – for every eight people executed, one innocent person is exonerated’.
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