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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.
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Can Alabamians afford the specter of 16 or more scheduled executions in a row?

A March 25, 2014 article from the Associated Press quotes Alabama Assistant Attorney General Clay Crenshaw saying that 16 death row inmates "have exhausted [all] appeals and are awaiting execution." Today, the exact number among the 185 inmates on Alabama's death row whose last remaining hope is clemency is unknown. However, even following the execution of Christopher Brooks on January 21, the number of inmates "out of court," with no further avenues of appeal, is at least 16, and it may be higher. This means that anytime it wants, the AG's office can, following the 2 year moratorium on executions that officially ended with Mr. Brooks, ask the courts to schedule 16 or more executions in a row.

The question is: Whatever personal beliefs Alabamians hold on the morality of the death penalty, is the scheduled killing of 16 or more people - one right after the other - a risk worth subjecting Alabama's fragile economy to?

Consider the steady drumbeat of publicized death and denunciations from around the United States and the world that would result, with the possibility, each time, of a gruesome botch, like the infamous Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, 2014. Generating an avalanche of negative press abroad, reporters witnessing Lockett's execution said he "writhed, groaned, and convulsed" taking 43 minutes to die.

Imagine 16 or more potential Lockett-like executions lined up - like ducks in a row - in Alabama. Picture the accompanying emotional baggage with each detail about the condemned, the crimes of which they were convicted, and the nitty gritty of each of their executions painstakingly picked through by the press . . . . How much negative publicity would Alabama see as a result? How much condemnation from foreign countries who abhor the death penalty would it reap - countries whose investment dollars Alabama's slowly rebuilding economy depends upon?

A June 2014 article by Michael Tomberlin titled, "Alabama, Birmingham benefit from growing levels of foreign direct investment," noted that "[the 5 top source countries of companies investing in Birmingham as a percent of jobs are Germany (14 %), Japan (12.9) Canada (11), Spain (8.8) and France (7.7)." Furthermore, "[t]he 5 leading source countries companies investing in Alabama as a % of the jobs are Germany (16.2 %), Japan (13.5), Republic of Korea (9.6), England (8.6) and Canada (7.5)." That means just a little less than 2 years ago, at least 41.5 % of foreign investment in Birmingham came from foreign countries that long ago abolished the death penalty and, at least 32.3 % of foreign investment in all of Alabama, likewise, came from abolitionist countries.

In addition to the already well-documented costs of capital punishment then - to Alabamians' morals, the judicial system and taxes (see the Equal Justice Initiative's website for detailed studies and support on all these) - can Alabama really risk ramping executions up when doing so will offend, even alienate, so many potential foreign investors - not to mention the Pope?

The University of Alabama's Center for Business and Economic Research is already predicting slow growth for Alabama's economy in 2016, and so, even if folks don't care so much about what foreigners think of Alabama's refusal to, as the New York Times Editorial Board put it on January 16, "join the rest of the civilized world and end the death penalty," don't Alabamians at least want those foreign dollars? Isn't it great that foreign companies like Mercedes-Benz and Airbus have chosen to invest in Alabama? Wouldn't it be awful if the state's rekindled lust for executions drove them, and foreign companies like them, away?

We already know Europeans hate the death penalty by their refusal to ship lethal injection drugs to the US and, just recently, after Saudi Arabia held mass executions, it was reported on January 15 by Eve Hartley of the Huffington Post that, "the brutal Saudi justice system [had] strain[ed] relations between" Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.

Putting aside all the very many good reasons already advanced to end the death penalty, isn't the most obvious in Alabamians' wallets? Is there really so much green in there already that accelerating - instead of taking immediate steps now to end the death penalty - is worth it?

Source: al.com, Stephen Cooper, Feb. 19, 2016. Mr. Cooper is a former D.C. public defender and worked as an Assistant Federal Defender in Montgomery, Alabama between 2012 and 2015, where he represented death row inmates.

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