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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

Is this really the end for America’s death penalty?

Long ago in 1992, the aides of Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, knew all about the inability of the governor of Arkansas to keep it in his trousers. The public was let in on the secret when Clinton’s former mistress, a nightclub singer of the type boys’ mothers once warned were nothing but trouble, announced their relationship.

Clinton lied. The mistress produced tapes of their intimate conversations. The Clinton camp’s fallback position that “everyone lies about sex” did not play well. Everyone may lie, but few want to be lied to, particularly when the liar is a presidential candidate asking for their trust.

Fortunately for Clinton, Arkansas had a convict called Ricky Ray Rector on death row. He had murdered a police officer and turned his gun on himself. Somehow he survived and Clinton flew back home to ensure his execution went ahead without hindrance, even though Rector was so brain damaged he could not have understood the charges against him.

I don’t think Christopher Hitchens ever lost the anger he felt at the spectacle of a white “progressive” from a state in the old Confederacy executing a black man to save his career. But smart political operators appreciated that Clinton’s “positioning” helped him become America’s 42nd president.

The 1990s seem like history now. Like an inmate on death row, the American way of death has been taking a slow journey towards its own extinction. “We are in the middle of a sea change,” Robert Dunham of the US Death Penalty Information Center told me. The number of new death sentences imposed fell sharply in 2015. Executions dropped to their lowest levels in 24 years. All the signs are pointing the same way.

Dunham turned from a lawyer into an activist when he was doing pro bono work. He found a poor Hispanic, who was not so different from Clinton’s Rector. The man had a severe mental disability and could not understand the case against him.

His lawyer could not be bothered to fight because, like Clinton, he was running for office. Dunham learned then that one of the best arguments against the death penalty was that poor clients got terrible advocates.

He never thought he would see abolition in his lifetime, but juries are refusing to pass death sentences and states are overturning old laws.

You don’t win arguments until the other side concedes ground. The biggest hint that change is coming is the second thoughts of Republicans. It turns out that there are strong conservative arguments against the death penalty. Libertarians ask: what greater instance of big government can there be than the state taking a citizen’s life?

As DNA evidence has shown that many of the executed ["sentenced to death" and exonerated would be more appropriate - DPN] were innocent, Christian conservatives have wondered how they can square opposition to abortion with support for the death penalty.


Source: The Guardian, Nick Cohen, December 19, 2015

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