Oklahoma executed Sean Sellers, who was sixteen when he murdered his parents, February 1999. This marked the first time in forty years that such a young offender was executed in the United States. Criticism and calls for clemency came from around the world, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the American Bar Association, and Amnesty International. These events that have occurred in our country are tearing it apart at its seams: the death penalty and the divided America it has created.
Long before the first prisons were built there was the penalty of death. The Greeks and Hebrews developed a specific ritual for execution by stoning. Death by a thousand cuts was popular in China where small bits of flesh were carved away over a period of days or weeks. In the 19th century India elephants were sometimes used to make executions especially excruciating. While in England people convicted of capital crimes were hung, disemboweled, and quartered. For a century, animals also found their way into the gallows; in 1396 a pig accused of fatally injuring a child was dressed in the suit of a man and publicly hanged.
Nearly four centuries have passed since the first documented lawful execution on American soil in 1608. The early ways of execution were adapted from the British, even though the colonies were thought to be more humane. In England burning at the stake, quartering, and disemboweling were still common place, hanging was the choice method of killing convicts in the colonies. However, the public hangings still had the festive carnival atmosphere as they did in Europe. Lynching was an unofficial form of execution and was widespread in early America. 1,540 documented lynchings were performed at its peak in the 1890s, during that time 1,098 authorized government executions were performed.
It would seem that injecting someone with deadly chemicals would be less expensive than keeping them incarcerated for the rest of their life. The best studies on the cost of the death penalty show that it costs about two million dollars more per execution in a state with capital punishment than for a system that imposes life imprisonment. From 1994 to 1976 an extra cost of one billion dollars has been spent on the death penalty. The state of Ohio spent at least $1.5 million to kill Wilford Berry a mentally ill man who wanted to be executed. In the end it would have cost half as much to keep him in prison for his entire life.
From the days of slavery when African Americans were considered property, through the years of lynchings and Jim Crow laws, capital punishment has always been affected by race. Unfortunately, the days of racial bias in the death penalty have not come to an end and become a memory of the past. In 1980, Clarence Brandley was charged with the murder of a white high school girl and later exonerated in 1990. One of you two is going to hang for this. Since youre the nigger youre elected, a Texas police officer told Brandley while he was being arrested.
Two studies were performed pertaining to racial discrimination and the death penalty. One was by two of the countrys best researchers on race and capital punishment, David Baldus and George Woodworth. They studied the likely hood of being sentenced to the death penalty based on race and discovered if you were an African American in Philadelphia being charged of a crime that a Caucasian was also being charged of, the African has a 38% greater chance of conviction.
Professor Jeffrey Pokorak performed the second study. He discovered that the key decision-makers in death cases around the country are almost exclusively white. Virginia leads the country in the number of defense attorneys that are African Americans with eight out of 121 Defense Attorneys currently practicing. While Missouri is second only to Texas in the number of white defense attorneys there is no Hispanic or African Defense Attorneys currently in the circuit.
1999 was a year of controversy for the death penalty, the rise in executions is at an all time high and the drop in death penalty support is at an all time low. Last year the number of executions went up 44% from 43 executions in 1998 to 98 executions in 1999. This was the largest number of executions performed in a single year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. But also the number of innocent people freed from death row increased in 1999, with the release of 8 more prisoners. Also in 1999 a Gallup Poll in February recorded the lowest support for the death penalty in 13 years.
It can also be said that 1999 was a notable year for the electric chair and other methods of execution. The execution of Allen Davis in July was an event that wont soon be forgotten. He was put to death by the electric chair in Florida, pictures of the deceased showed his shirt covered in blood from his pouring face, a large tight collar around his neck and a traumatized face. Because of this execution the constitutionality of Floridas electric chair was eventually held up in Floridas Supreme Court in a 4-3 vote. The United States Supreme Court will hear the case in February of 2000. Along with Allen Davis two other men were put to death by the electric chair last year, 94 men died by lethal injection and one man was executed in the gas chamber.
Despite the number of executions last year, many prominent leaders from across the political scene raised objections to the death penalty. Pope John Paul II, while speaking in Missouri, called for an end to the death penalty in what might be his last visit to the United States. Justice Paul Pfiefer of the Ohio Supreme Court, and one of the writers of the states death penalty law, has spoken against the death penalty and its morality. Mary Robinson the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has also publicly addressed the issue.
The mentally retarded and mentally ill convicts make up 6% of all convicts that have been executed since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated. But the criticism given to the United States on the fact of executing the mentally unsound has been to ignore it. At least 34 individuals with identified mental retardation have been executed though not every prisoner is tested. Psychological testing of all the inmates on death row in Mississippi showed that 27% were within range of potential mental retardation. The number of those suffering from mental illness represents an additional concern. A recent report from the Department of Justice revealed that at least 16% of all inmates in the nations prisons suffer from mental illness. United States law prohibits the execution of the insane, but this is a very rarely met standard.
Two of the more bizarre cases of mental illness are the cases of Rickey Ray Rector and Varnall Weeks. In 1992, then presidential candidate Governor Bill Clinton returned to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a man whose brain had been lobotomized and who believed he could return to his cell for dessert after his execution. Varnall Weeks was executed in Alabama in 1995 despite the fact that psychologists testifying both for Weeks and the State agreed that he suffered from pervasive and bizarre religious delusions. These delusions caused him to believe that he was God, that his execution was part of a millennial religious scheme to destroy mankind, and that he would not die but rather he would be transformed into a tortoise and reign over the universe.
As the new millennium approaches, the United States finds itself drifting into isolation because of the issue of capital punishment. Right now, no other issue is pushing the United States further apart from its allies and growing consensus of international law than the death penalty. The costs to the U.S. in terms of international stature and vital cooperation from other countries are enormous. 105 countries of the world have abolished the death penalty. The previous Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1999 commuted over 700 death sentences to life in a step towards ending the death penalty and paving the way for Russias admission to the council of Europe. The 40-nation council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg called for a ban on the death penalty.
The death penalty has gone under much scrutiny and inspection. Its history, cost, racial discrimination, and the difficulties we may or may not face by having it instated is isolating us from our fellow allies. Other countries see capital punishment as an uncivil unmoral act but because of the controversy and mixed feelings of America and its citizens it has kept it instated. The death penalty is dividing our country from its allies and because of this we as a country need to decide whether to fully support it or to abandon it as other countries have done.