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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 -…

Who Is Dangerous, and Who Dies?

An appalling and racialized standard of ‘future dangerousness’ has been used to condemn defendants. This lawyer fought it.

The death penalty, like abortion, is one of those hot-button topics that keeps popping up into the public consciousness, a roach motel for meretricious ideas and bad public policy — including racism. I would bet that if it involved putting white people to death for killing black people, it would have been abolished years ago. Still, it persists. Except our society — until recently — has come to believe that overt expressions of racism might not be a good thing. Better to keep a fig leaf over it than to explore its underbelly.

In 1972, the Supreme Court found in the 5-4 decision of Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty as practiced in this country was unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. But the majority couldn’t agree on a rationale for its decision, so instead of one majority opinion, five separate concurrences were produced. While Justices Brennan and Marshall found the death penalty itself to be cruel and usual punishment, Justices Stewart, White and Douglas focused on its arbitrariness, leaving the door wide open for states to rejigger their statutes and return to executions.

In 1973, Texas did just that — the sentencing phase of a capital trial was separated from the guilt phase, and the jury was asked to consider “whether there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society [future dangerousness].” In response to the Furman decision, Governor Preston Smith commuted the death sentences of 52 inmates in Texas, clearing out death row entirely. In 1976, consolidating cases from five different states (Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Louisiana), the court in Gregg v. Georgia found that the death penalty was not unconstitutional in every case. Executions in Texas, now by lethal injection — Old Sparky, the Texas electric chair, had been retired — started back up in 1982.

Not long ago, I read about the case of Buck v. Davis, decided by the Supreme Court on Feb. 22. Duane Buck had been convicted of capital murder in 1997. He killed his ex-girlfriend and one of her friends. The details of the crime are appalling, but no less appalling is that Dr. Walter Quijano discussed Mr. Buck’s race as a factor in determining his future dangerousness. African-Americans, Dr. Quijano argued, are more likely to commit acts of violence. Though Dr. Quijano opined that Mr. Buck was not a risk of future dangerousness, his testimony about race remained an element for the jury to consider.

Dr. Quijano has given similar testimony in other death penalty cases since 1991.


Source: The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, Errol Morris, June 7, 2017. Errol Morris is a writer and filmmaker. He lives with his wife and French bulldog in Cambridge.

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