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Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

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In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

The questions Ohio should be asking about the death penalty

Delbert Lee Tibbs
Not a day goes by that death row exoneree Delbert Tibbs doesn’t go outside. It could be one of those days when he’s feeling his age. Or when one of Chicago’s infamous blizzards blows in off Lake Michigan, it wouldn’t matter. He’d walk to his front door of his apartment, open it, step outside, and take it all in. He says he turns around, looks up at the sky, and breathes deep.

An open door equals freedom to Tibbs, who spent three years on Florida’s Death Row convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. The only witness described a murderer who was seven inches taller than Tibbs, with a darker complexion and an afro, which Tibbs didn’t have. A jailhouse informant claimed Tibbs admitted to the crime. Ultimately, an all-white jury convicted him. That informant recanted his testimony and the state supreme court reversed its decision. Tibbs was released in January, 1977, and five years later all charges were dropped.

“Going outside like that might seem strange, but it’s a sign of my freedom,” says Tibbs. And then with his charming radio-voice baritone and a bit of a mischievous eye he adds, “Now if it’s too cold and I don’t have plans for the day, I just go back inside and sit in my chair and read.”

Across the country, the death penalty seems to be on the way out. Maryland abolished the death penalty last May. A state representative in New Hampshire will soon be introducing a bill to do the same in that state. In Oregon a former state Supreme Court justice has joined the chorus of those opposed to the wasteful, broken practice that is the death penalty.

But the state of Ohio continues the archaic and inhumane practice. Ohio needs to open the door, too, so that we don’t continue wasting resources and human lives—wonderful, intelligent lives like that of Delbert Tibbs—because of a system that’s clearly flawed.

I met Tibbs and two other exonerated men—Joe D’Ambrosio and Damon Thibadeaux—when they visited Denison University in Granville, Ohio, last week. The three exonerees were on a tour organized by Ohioans to Stop Executions and Will Francome, director of One for Ten, a film that highlights the unsettling fact that for every ten people executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, one person has been exonerated.

The tour comes at an auspicious time for Ohio—weeks before a state task force reviewing the death penalty meets for the final time in Columbus. Ironically, the meeting will take place on the same day as the state is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips(1). The task force will analyze the death penalty as it is currently practiced and determine if it is administered fairly and judiciously.

The task force was prompted in part by a 2007 report by the American Bar Association (ABA) that called for a moratorium of the state’s death penalty. It underscored what is painfully apparent— that the death penalty is unfair in Ohio. Whether or not you are given a death sentence often depends on the race of your victim, where you live, and how much money you have. And, also important, the exorbitant cost of the death penalty diverts money that could be providing services for the families of murder victims.

However, the question of whether or not the death penalty should exist at all in Ohio is not being considered. The stories of these three exonerated men bring that fact into sharp focus.

D’Ambrosio told me, “There have been six people exonerated in the state of Ohio. Six! And I’m one of them. Can you tell me that innocent people haven’t been executed?!”

That’s a question that we should all seriously examine and answer.


(1) Ohio Gov. John Kasich without comment on Thursday [November 7, 2013] denied the request for mercy by Ronald Phillips. He is sentenced to die for the 1993 rape and murder of his girlfriend's daughter. A federal judge earlier Thursday also declined to block the execution. The 40-year-old Phillips is set to die Nov. 14 by lethal injection with a drug combination never used before in the U.S. The Ohio Parole Board recommended against mercy. (Associated Press)


-- Op-Ed by Jack Shuler, November 8, 2013. Mr. Shuler is John and Christine Warner professor and associate professor of English at Denison University. His book The Noose: A Knotted History (forthcoming from PublicAffairs, 2014) explores the history of the hangman’s knot from the Iron Age to contemporary Iran. He also wrote Blood and Bone (University of South Carolina Press, 2012) and Calling Out Liberty (Mississippi University Press, 2009). Also by Jack Shuler on this website: The Other Iranian Execution Stories, October 29, 2013

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