In a deeply moving and very personal statement, California Governor Gavin Newsom last week introduced a moratorium on executions in his state, ensuring that none of the 737 men and women currently on California’s death row – more than a quarter of all those currently under a sentence of death in the US - will be put to death in the foreseeable future. It’s a bold act driven by the Governor’s deeply held beliefs about fairness, justice, and equality under the law. I applaud his moral leadership.
The California moratorium sends a powerful signal to the rest of the country, at a time when legislators, governors and the wider public in a growing number of red and blue states are debating abolishing the death penalty.
Those who’ve followed my views over the years know where I stand on the issue. I’ve always felt the death penalty is a barbaric and inhumane form of punishment that should have no place in modern society.
Studies have shown that the threat of execution is not a deterrent to violent crime. The death penalty’s application is arbitrary and uneven. In the US, most death sentences are handed down in just a handful of local jurisdictions; nearly identical crimes can lead to very different sentences within the same state, depending on a prosecutor’s zeal and ambition or the quality and motivation of the defence team.
The death penalty has disproportionately targeted people of colour and the poor. Many of those sentenced to die were not able to afford high-priced legal representation. At the same time, few wealthy people ever wind up on death row.
Equally disconcerting is the unacceptable rate of error in capital convictions. As of last November, 164 men and women in the US have been freed from death row after their innocence was proven through DNA testing, other evidence or new witness testimony. That’s 164 people who spent an average of 11 years wondering if they’d ever be given a chance to prove their innocence, leave prison alive and reunite with their families. People like Anthony Ray Hinton, who languished on Alabama’s death row for 30 years following a death sentence for multiple murders he had no involvement in. Or people like Vicente Benavides, who walked free from California’s St Quentin prison last April after false forensic evidence put him on death row for 25 years.
An exoneration rate this high begs the question just how many of those convicted were not as fortunate and entered the death chamber innocent of the crimes they had been convicted for. I’d say just one innocent person being put to death is a powerful argument against the whole system.
Aside from my fundamental moral opposition to the death penalty, I am also puzzled by the colossal waste of taxpayer money. We are talking about millions, if not billions of dollars that could be spent far more effectively on schools, health care for the sick and the elderly, or on critical infrastructure.
Our team, alongside a wonderful network of organisations and individuals, have spent much time and effort in recent years campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty, in the US and elsewhere. Our mission is far from over, but as the number of states repealing capital punishment increases and as the number of both death sentences imposed and people executed has been declining, I’m more and more convinced that the death penalty is on its way out. Surely, states can do better than killing their own people. And surely, the US can do better to regain some of the moral authority that could make a difference in other parts of the world.