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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

A Major Latino Coalition Just Called For An End To The Death Penalty

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), a coalition of 40 prominent Latino organizations, this week joined the growing, bipartisan list of groups calling for the end of the death penalty, noting that Latinos are "directly affected by its injustices."

For the 1st time ever, the NHLA Public Policy Agenda includes positions on drug policy and criminal justice and policing reforms. Perhaps most notably, the groups unanimously agreed to support abolition of capital punishment, a practice they say "disproportionately impacts people of color."

"The criminal justice system is so broken, there will never be an impartial way to apply capital punishment to avoid the fact that the most determinant factor in whether or not someone is put to death is the race of the victim," said Juan Cartagena, co-chair of the NHLA Civil Rights committee and president of LatinoJustice.

"We never had to dig any deeper into morality or issues about death in general," he added. "The racialized aspects of the imposition of the death penalty in the United States could not just be overlooked, and that became the unifying piece."

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 2010, Latinos make up a growing portion of defendants on death row. That year, they constituted 13.5 % of the U.S. death row population, up from 11 % in 2000. A recent study found that white jurors were more likely to impose the death penalty in cases where the defendant was Latino and poor.

The racialized aspects of the imposition of the death penalty in the United States could not just be overlooked.

And as Cartagena noted, defendants who victimize a white person are far more likely to be sentenced to death than those whose victims are black or Latino. Of all the executions in the country since 1976, more than 75 % of victims were white, while just 6.8 % were Latino and 15.4 % were black.

The racial disparities in the death penalty are one of the many reasons why a growing list of political leaders have come out against the practice. Even conservative organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals have reconsidered their support for the death penalty in recent years, and support for the practice is no longer a given in red states. Nebraska recently abolished capital punishment and there are movements in other Republican-controlled states including Utah and Nevada to do the same.

2 weeks after Pope Francis told Congress to eliminate capital punishment, calling it "inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed," the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, a national network of 3,000 Latino evangelical churches, also came out against the practice for the 1st time ever.

The NHLA includes several organizations that lean conservative and Republican, like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But Cartagena said he never heard any negative feedback about the decision to call for the abolition of the death penalty.

"It was an easy lift," he said. "There was no real contentiousness about this issue, nor the one about drug policy reform, nor the one about mass incarceration, juvenile justice, et cetera, et cetera."

Just 56 % of Americans say they support capital punishment, a 40-year low, down from 78 % just 2 decades ago. Yet 31 states and the federal government still allow for the execution of certain defendants.

While Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, has said she still supports the limited application of the death penalty, Cartagena said he hopes that grassroots movement against it, like the coordinated decision of the NHLA, push her to reconsider.

"We've only had sporadic movements from the bottom on justice reform and death penalty reform," he said. "This is a long and arduous process ... Am I concerned that the current Democratic leadership is not fully attuned to the needs to reform the criminal justice system in all its aspects? Of course I am. Am I surprised? Definitely not."

"The ability for us to move this particular issue is going to take a long, long time," he added.

Source: thinkprogress.org, June 10, 2016

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