Let’s finish off the death penalty

According to the ACLU, 113 inmates have been released from death row as of February 2004, and more than half of them within the past 10 years. A study by Columbia University Professor James Liebman, which examined every capital case nationwide from 1973 to 1995, concluded that 82 percent of death row inmates did not deserve the death penalty, and that one-fifth of them were later found not guilty. Since 1976, some 949 death-row inmates have been executed, five so far this year, according to Amnesty International.

It’s time to abolish the death penalty altogether.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision abolishing executions of people convicted in murders committed while they were minors was a step in the right direction, as was the earlier decision to bar executions of the mentally retarded. But what we really need to do now is to erase the death penalty in its entirety. Enough of the brick-by-brick approach. A system that would allow so many innocent people to be sentenced to death is a system far too flawed — and far too dangerous — for what most of us would like to think is a civilized society.

According to a 2003 report by the ACLU, "People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 percent of total executions since 1976 [when the Supreme Court re-instituted the death penalty after a three-year moratorium] and 55 percent of those currently awaiting execution."

The jurisdictions with the highest percentages of minorities on their death rows as of February 2003 were the U.S. Military (86 percent), Colorado (80 percent), the U.S. Government (77 percent), Louisiana (72 percent) and Pennsylvania (70 percent). 

"While white victims account for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80 percent of all capital cases involve white victims. Furthermore, as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims," stated the report.

This obviously means that those most in need of strong — or at least competent — representation rarely get it.

Liebman’s study further found that 68 percent of the thousands of capital cases he researched had been reversed. Poor legal representation was cited as one of the primary reasons for the high reversal rate.

Life is far too precious to be extinguished by mistake, but given the results of this study it seems as though our legal system is sometimes better at practicing — and perpetuating — mistakes than it is at upholding the law when it comes to the death penalty.

"It’s obvious to me that there is a trend in this country among Democrats and Republicans alike in support of the death penalty," says David Lee, a prominent local criminal defense attorney, most of whose practice is in federal court. "Society has ignored the fact that the majority of [people facing the death penalty] are poor, black, disenfranchised, and poorly represented. This has been proven by research, and yet our own Supreme Court has refused to accept this."

Four years ago, another study by John Ashcroft’s Justice Department claimed that an expanded review of the federal death penalty found no evidence of racial bias. Ashcroft maintained that his department’s study only confirmed what the previous U.S. attorney general, Janet Reno, had found in a report that found "black and Hispanic defendants were less likely at each stage of the department’s review process to be subjected to the death penalty than white defendants."

Although the Ashcroft study did concede that blacks were sentenced to the death penalty in vastly disproportionate numbers, it also said that the reason for this was most likely because of the statutes governing the federal death penalty, meaning that federal prosecutors handle multijurisdictional drug and gang cases "in which minorities are disproportionately represented."

So in other words, the primary reason why so many more blacks and Hispanics get the death penalty is not because of poor legal representation nor any built-in racial bias, nor is it because too many mistakes are consistently made with death penalty cases, but it is simply because blacks and Hispanics are the ones committing most of the crimes that require death as punishment.

The fact that whites are at least twice as likely as blacks or Hispanics to receive a plea bargain in death penalty cases was acknowledged as a troubling matter, but the bottom line, according to Ashcroft, seems to be that most crimes committed by white people just aren’t serious enough to put them to death for it, and the disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics on death row are there because they deserve to be.


We have been practicing the death penalty in America ever since the first European settlers came over here and swiped the country from the natives. The practice of capital punishment was essentially transplanted here from the British. The first recorded execution in the colonies was of a Captain George Kendall who was executed in 1608 in the Jamestown colony of Virginia, accused of being a spy for Spain. Four years later, in 1612, Virginia Gov. Sir Thomas Dale enacted the oddly named Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which actually allowed people to be executed for the morally unforgivable sins of stealing grapes, killing chickens and trading with Indians.

More than 200 years later in 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of mentally retarded defendants violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution banning cruel and unusual punishment. In 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan created a firestorm of controversy nationwide when he granted clemency to all of the remaining 167 death row inmates in Illinois because the criminal justice system that led them there was shown to be incredibly flawed.

The next month, in Michigan, federal prosecutors requested the death penalty for Milton "Butch" Jones, the notorious Detroit drug kingpin who co-founded Young Boys Incorporated, the drug gang that terrorized Detroit for much of the ’80s. Jones, along with Raymond Canty and Eugene Mitchell, are accused in a drug and murder conspiracy case. The death penalty request delayed the trials of all three men that were scheduled to begin the following month in Detroit federal court.

What is disturbing about this particular case is that, since there is no death penalty in Michigan, it appears Ashcroft’s office may have strong-armed the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit to pursue the death penalty on a federal level. No matter what anybody may think of Jones and his pals — a sick, twisted and murderous bunch — that is no justification for Ashcroft to steamroll his way over Michigan law.

"It’s obvious that in states that don’t allow the death penalty, such as Michigan, the federal government is getting involved. It’s a disturbing trend," says Lee, who defended a Detroit client in the 2003 case which marked the first time the feds have sought the death penalty in eastern Michigan in more than 50 years.

A U.S. District court jury gave Lee’s client — a crack-ring head and double murderer — a life sentence rather than death. As with the Young Boys case, put aside your opinions of the defendant. This is an example of a heartening trend: Even when the feds try their best to fry someone, the juries rarely have the stomach for it. The Justice Department has authorized the death penalty in 318 cases since 1988. Only 254 of those cases have gone to trial, and juries imposed the death penalty just 38 times. Only three of those sentences have been carried out.

Just goes to show that the people still have the ultimate power to set things straight — we just have to use it. Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to

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