With the NCADP conference being held in Seattle this is a good chance for citizens to learn more about the death penalty and its inherent injustice. One of the often overlooked aspects of the death penalty is that in the criminal law field death penalty litigation is at the cutting edge where new decisions and court opinions are being made that affect all criminal defendants, not just those actually facing the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court in particular has used death penalty cases to roll back what had been considered well established rights and it is continuing to do so.
In many ways the death penalty is a microcosm of the criminal justice system as a whole, with the racially disproportionate number of minorities facing the death penalty, the virtual absence of the wealthy from death row, and the horrible conditions most prisoners must live in while awaiting the death penalty. Recent years have seen a restoration of the federal death penalty and then its expansion to a whole new area of offenses, even those that do not involve the loss of life. Right now 36 states have the death penalty and Nebraska and Massachusetts are both seriously considering reinstating it. The New York state legislature has passed death penalty bills several times in recent years only to be vetoed by Governor Cuomo.
Right now we are seeing defendants caught between the rock of a vastly expanded death penalty and the hard place of diminished legal rights and Court scrutiny especially in the federal courts review of state proceedings, of the fairness and legality of how the death penalty was imposed. That some 40% of current state death sentences are overturned by the federal courts shows the level of existing problems.
In June of 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia, ruled the death penalty as then applied was arbitrary and capricious and in violation of the 8th Amendments ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That decisions spared the lives of some 700 men and women across the country.
Four years later though, the Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia, upheld the new revised death penalty statutes which were then adopted in many states that have the death penalty. Since then 146 people in 16 states have been executed (Florida and Texas account for 65 of the murders) and some 2,500 men and women now await that same fate. Nothing much has changed in the 20 years since the Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional.
Of some 20,000 murders committed by private citizens each year in the U.S., only a tiny percent will face the death penalty if apprehended. Statistically those most likely to face the death penalty are people of color that kill a white person, those least likely are whites who kill blacks. And of course, rich people just don't seem eligible for the death penalty at all.
There's a number of groups and organizations across the country that oppose the death penalty and are seeking to abolish it, these range from civil rights groups to churches and religious organizations. Anyone interested in more information on this topic should contact the following:
National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, 1325 G St N.W., Washington D.C. 20005 has a wide variety of resources, to include books, videos, speakers and their bi-monthly newsletter "Lifelines" available. "Endeavor." P.O. Box 23511, Houston, TX 77228 is a quarterly tabloid newspaper written and published by the prisoners on death row in Texas. It includes stories, poems, news, etc.
Texas Abolition Network, 5429 Goodwin Ave., Dallas, TX 75206 is an abolitionist group in Texas, they publish a small monthly newsletter called "The Network News" and regularly report on death penalty developments in Texas and elsewhere.
The Washington Coalition Against the Death Penalty, 705 Second Ave., #300, Seattle, WA 98104 is a Washington state group which seeks to abolish the death penalty in this state, they publish a quarterly newsletter and have speakers and other resources available.
NAACP Legal Defense Fund, 99 Hudson St., Suite 600, New York, NY 10013 has a free book called "Death Row, USA " and a variety of resources available including a very detailed statistical and individualized breakdown of just who is (and also important, who isn't) on death row.
Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, 185 Walton St. N.W., Atlanta, GA 30303 also does death penalty work in the Southern states. At this time I don't know what they have to offer in the way of publications and such.
The Quixote Center, P.O. Box 5206, Hyattsville, MD 20782 has a variety of resources available, the best thing being "A Saga of Shame" which I have reviewed in previous issues of PLN. It gives an excellent history of the death penalty in the U.S. and its racial bias and abuses.
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