What others say about the death penalty

“I have evolved to where I don’t think the death penalty is effective. I have been against executing mentally ill people for many years, but I now oppose capital punishment in general because I don’t see it as a deterrent and victims’ families don’t gain the finality they seek when the murderer is put to death.”
Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, former Ohio Supreme Court Justice

• “I never knew a single person who was made better by hurting them.”
Ex-Death Row prisoner Wilbert Rideau

Media commentators point out that the people sentenced to death are not necessarily those who commit the worst crimes, but the poorest people who can’t pay for hours of lawyers’ time.

• “Capital punishment is for those without capital.”

• “I knew that inept doctors could kill you, but I didn’t realize that incompetent lawyers can also get you killed.”
Sister Helen Prejean, ‘The Death Row nun’ (featured in the movie ‘Dead Man Walking’) in her book ‘The Death of Innocents’

Many senior legal and political figures agree:

• “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty … I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court, on eve-of-execution stay applications, in which the defendant was well represented at trial.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice 2001

• “We cannot ignore the fact that in recent years a disturbing number of inmates on death row have been exonerated.”
John Paul Stevens, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Judges have the final say in whether or not to accept the evidence of innocence presented by State-appointed lawyers or even to allow it to be heard in court.

• “There has never been a case when the [United States Supreme] court has accepted that the ‘mere’ fact that a prisoner is innocent should be a constitutional basis for ordering his release.”
Clive Stafford Smith, OBE, founder of human rights organization Reprieve, in his book ‘Injustice’

Some US judges and political figures claim that errors are never made. Others disagree.

• “I disagree very much with Judge Scalia’s certitude that we have never put to death an innocent person. It’s one of the reasons why I personally am opposed to the death penalty. We have the greatest judicial system in the world … but dedicated men and women can make mistakes. And I find it hard to believe that in our history that has not happened.
I think at some point, we will find a person who was put to death and who should not have been, who was not guilty of a crime.”
Eric Holder, outgoing United States Attorney General, Nov 2014

Before evidence is presented in court to a jury it undergoes processes that may, if mishandled, distort it. Witnesses encouraged to ‘remember’ details they didn’t see, or suspects promised immunity from the death sentence if they incriminate someone else, are elements in a number of death penalty cases, as is the use of forensic evidence later discredited as ‘junk science.’

• “No tale told by any witness should be accepted without demur …. The process of trial preparation actually shapes the story that the witness ultimately tells.”
Clive Stafford Smith,OBE, death penalty lawyer and founder of Reprieve

Some people argue that when an inhumane crime has clearly been committed by the person convicted of it, the death penalty is justified. Ron McAndrew, a US prison governor who oversaw executions, now disagrees:

• “Killing a murderer is like killing a human being that’s not trying to kill me or anyone else – because I already have him locked in a tiny six-by-nine foot concrete and steel cell. Killing the murderer – to make the point that it’s wrong to kill – is wrong. All it does is buy votes and tell our children that it’s OK to kill.”

Chillingly, some American presidents, politicians and prosecutors boost their careers by sending high numbers of people to the death chamber.

• “The death penalty is but one thing and one thing only: it’s a political toy that’s played for votes.”
Prison governor Ron McAndrew, whose own family also experienced being the victim of murder crime

Legislation to make executions ‘humane’ has been notoriously ineffective, with numerous recent accounts of grisly long-drawn-out deaths. McAndrew says:

• “I’ve worked electrocutions and lethal injections. There are no humane executions. None.”

Others agree:

• “The Romell Broom case is yet another example of why the United States should abolish the death penalty immediately. The inherent flaws of the capital punishment system are again exposed in all their horror as we are left to ponder how many other individuals will have to go through this nightmare.”
Rick Halperin, former Chair, Amnesty International USA

Does the primitive desire for revenge, or the contagious nature of violence, still have its effect on our ‘civilized’ society?
• “To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice. I am passionately opposed to the death penalty for anyone … I think, myself, that it is an obscenity … that brutalizes society.”
Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner, South African Archbishop

• “Can the state, which represents the whole of society and has the duty of protecting society, fulfill that duty by lowering itself to the level of the murderer and treating him as he treated others? The forfeiture of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process. And I believe that future generations, throughout the world, will come to agree.”
Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations

• “ The death penalty is never acceptable. It abuses two of our most basic human rights: everyone has the right to live and no one shall be subject to torture. The death penalty obviously kills people but it also tortures, physically by the brutal nature of execution and psychologically by forcing individuals to wait to be killed. They sometimes wait for decades while others are led to their deaths.” Jeremy Irons, actor and human rights activist

• “Remember that what you do to these men, you do to God.”
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to a guard on California’s Death Row in 1987

• “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them! But the line dividing good and evil passes not through states nor between classes nor between political parties – but right through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel prizewinner and victim of torture, exile and imprisonment for speaking out against brutal regimes