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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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Momentum firmly against death penalty in U.S., Dead Man Walking author says

Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean
World-renowned activist, author and Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean does not mince words about why the death penalty should be abolished.

Prejean is the author of numerous books, including Dead Man Walking, a New York Times bestseller for six months upon its release in 1993. The book was later adapted into an Academy Award-winning film and an opera, both of the same name.

She spoke to Ted Blades of CBC Radio's On the Go this week.

She had come to St. John's to deliver the Arrupe Lecture at St. Bonaventure's College.

The death penalty was abolished in Canada in 1976, although the journey to abolish it began in 1950. Canada is one of 103 countries in the world which have abolished the death penalty. However, 36 countries, including the United States, China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, still practice the death penalty.

Q: So how would you describe the current state of the death penalty in the United States, both in practice and in theory?

Well, we put it back in 1976 — the very year Canada's parliament voted not to bring it back, even though 70 per cent of the people of Canada in polls said they wanted it — so for these 30 years we've executed over 1,200 people by shooting, gassing, electrocuting, lethal injection.

Polls started out that there was 80 per cent support for the death penalty in the United States; in the deep south states, it was almost 90 per cent. And now, for the first time, when people are given the question do you prefer the death penalty or life without parole, they prefer life without parole. We got over 50 per cent… so the death plenty is in diminishment.

In the last 10 years, seven states have abolished it, and California is poised to do it next in a referendum. For the first time we have a Supreme Court justice, [Stephen] Breyer, who has listed constitutionally all the problems with the practice of the death penalty. So the theory of the death penalty is that it is always been it's reserved for the worst of the worst.

In practice, over 75 per cent of all the actual executions have happened in the 10 southern states that practised slavery.

Practically, every eight out of 10 chosen to die, it's because they killed a white person. When people of colour are killed, it's never practised. And the other big factor is we now have 156 wrongfully convicted people who've managed to get off of death row because they were saved by college kids in innocence projects. So people now see the thing's broken. It's not working.

And the other factor that we have to put in here is the exorbitant cost. It costs millions of dollars to keep capital punishment in pace.

At first, that sounds counterintuitive, but everything is more costly. One [district attorney] put it, "It's like the Cadillac of the criminal justice system." You have a capital case, you have two trials, one is for guilt to innocence, and the second is "what will the sentence be?", and that can last as long or longer, then you got to build a special part of your prison.

The costliness of it is stopping people in their tracks because they don't see a practical difference or effect, that if someone was put in prison for life, and you know they can't kill again, why are we going through all this expense of killing a few people…

Q: Do you think we will we see it? Maybe not in your lifetime or mine but do you think we are going to see the end of [capital punishment]?

A; Yup. No, we are going to see it in our lifetimes. You can see it beginning to happen. That's a lot of education, a lot of deaths. In theory, it would only be reserved for the worst of the worst, and now we look at who it's actually applied to. They're all poor… you know what being poor means when you're up against the power's of the state for your life? Who do you have by your side?

Just like [if] you got a brain tumour, you need a good surgeon, you need a good physician, you need a crackerjack attorney by your side. But then you get into the culture of the south, where you have [district attorneys who] run for office and brag about how many death penalties they get, because it's part of the culture.

The guidelines of the Supreme Court never held up in the culture, and in practice it's been broken from the start. You got to give people information, and then you got to bring them through the story, bringing them over to both sides of the horror, and leaving them with the question leading to deeper reflection.


Source: CBC News, May 22, 2016

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