THE SANTA CLARA
October 29, 2015
Ever wonder what the United States, Iran and Pakistan all have in common? If you guessed that they all impose the death penalty — or if you glanced up to the title of this article — you would be correct. Yet one difference arises in the fact that America’s use of the death penalty seems to blatantly violate its own rules. The United States of America executes its citizens in clear violation of its moral and legal backbone: the Constitution.
While the subject of the death penalty has been debated for decades on every level of the political and intellectual system in our country, perhaps nothing is as contentious as its relationship with the Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Ratified in 1791, the Fifth Amendment says, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime… nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Simply put, in America we are innocent until proven guilty; the burden of proof is not on the accused. However, as Santa Clara’s Innocence Project will tell you, that is certainly not always the case.
As of this October, 156 death row inmates have been exonerated. According to the Innocence Project’s website, “From 1973-1999, there were an average of 3.03 exonerations per year. From 2000-2013, there have been an average of 4.29 exonerations per year.”
There is no way of knowing how many of the over 1,400 people executed since 1973 were innocent, but clearly at least four new families every year would argue that our process should be reevaluated. Considering that we are dealing with a fatal and absolutely irreversible punishment, even the slightest margin of error indicates that the death penalty is unconstitutional under the Due Process clause of the Constitution.
Also ratified in 1791, the Eighth Amendment states, “Cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.” Inmates sit on death row for decades before their execution is carried out — only 13 of the 900 people sentenced to death in California since 1978 had been executed by July of last year. Their agonizingly excessive wait for death does not seem at all proportional to their crime — the grounds that the Supreme Court established to legalize the death penalty.
Waiting thirty-five years to die by lethal injection, a process not without its flaws — as Joseph Wood would have likely attested to after spending hours gasping in pain before dying by lethal injection in July of last year — is without a doubt both cruel and unusual.
While there can be no arguing that the people on death row have committed the most unethical and morally reprehensible actions known to our society, our current system promotes a punishment that is anything but proportional.
Finally, and perhaps most damningly, the Fourteenth Amendment demands that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
In 2009, Michael L. Radelet and Glenn L. Pierce undertook a comprehensive analysis of racial disparities in homicide cases and rulings. Such a disparity would stand in direct opposition to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and if it holds true, clearly challenges the constitutionality of the death penalty.
By analyzing data from the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Reports, Radelet and Pierce sought to “find out if homicides with White victims are more likely than homicides with Black or Hispanic victims to have a suspected perpetrator identified by the police.”
After extensive research of the matter, they concluded that, “these data add to the evidence that not all victims are treated equally at various stages of the criminal justice system.” Clearly, there is a racial issue with the handling of death penalty cases on a systematic and societal level, a blatant violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
They say we are only as good as the company we keep, and America’s use of the death penalty leaves it with less than desirable associates. More importantly though, the execution of inmates in the United States goes against several key cornerstones of our Constitution.
Tom Curran-Levett is a senior political science major and the opinion editor of The Santa Clara.