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Dead Man Walking: The Return of the Federal Death Penalty

ColumnAugust 15, 2019
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By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan

On July 25, in a surprise announcement, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said that the federal government would be resuming executions, with five scheduled in the coming months. This overturns an effective moratorium on the federal death penalty that has lasted over 16 years. “Punishment must be swift,” Barr said. Just a week later, President Donald Trump exploited the mass killings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, by demanding not an assault weapons ban, but that capital punishment “be delivered quickly, decisively and without years of needless delay.” Needless delay? Since 1973, over 160 wrongfully convicted people have been freed from death row.

In fact, the death penalty is rapidly losing favor in the United States. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have banned executions, while four more states have formal moratoriums in place. Around the world, 106 countries have outlawed capital punishment, and another 28 either have moratoriums or don’t carry out the death sentences. Trump’s death penalty dictate is a tragic step backward.

“I’m not surprised that William Barr did this or the Trump administration wants to expedite federal executions,” renowned anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “It’s their whole way of approaching everything: the way is through violence to try to solve social problems.” Prejean is the Catholic nun who rose to global prominence in 1995 after her book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty” was turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

In her new memoir, “River of Fire,” Prejean eloquently describes the path that led her from a life as a semi-cloistered young nun in New Orleans in the 1960s to become one of the world’s most celebrated and effective campaigners against capital punishment. In it, she writes, “From years on the road talking with people in every state of this nation I realized that most folks have never reflected deeply about capital punishment and have almost no information about how the penalty actually works — or doesn’t work.”

Prejean co-founded a group, Survive, that works with the families of murder victims. Bud Welch lost his daughter Julie in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which killed 168 people. Timothy McVeigh was later executed for the crime. Welch said on “Democracy Now!”: “One cannot go through the healing process at all when you’re living with revenge. And that’s all the death penalty is, revenge. It is not a deterrent. It doesn’t, as the media says, bring closure to family members.”

The Death Penalty Information Center presents clear and compelling statistics on the 2,500 people currently on death row in the U.S., and how unjustly the death penalty is implemented. The most significant factors in determining whether or not a person is given the death penalty are the location where they are tried, whether they are poor, and the race of the victim. For example, over half of all death sentences are handed down in just 2% of U.S. counties. Similarly, over 75% of capital punishment cases involve murders where the victim was white. According to the DPIC, “In Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black. Jurors in Washington state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case.”

Not only is the death penalty administered in an unjust, biased way, but it is also irreversible. Death is final. Clifford Williams Jr. and Charles Ray Finch became the 165th and 166th death row prisoners to be exonerated. Each of these innocent African American men spent over 40 years on death row. With the expedited execution schedule fancied by Trump and Barr, they would have been long dead.

Helen Prejean believes Trump and Barr “seem to have no understanding about how the courts work. They can claim all they want that they’re going to fast-track this and speed up these executions, but there is the Constitution, and there are the appeals.” While her focus remains on grassroots organizing, she also points to the importance of dedicated death penalty defense attorneys.

One such lawyer is Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The group’s Legacy Museum and the accompanying lynching memorial are deeply moving, documenting the 400-year history of African Americans, from enslavement to Jim Crow to the current crisis of mass incarceration.

Said Stevenson on “Democracy Now!,” “The death penalty is lynching’s stepson.”

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