Cruelty, Race, and the Death Penalty

It’s not as if capital punishment wasn’t bad enough, but the State of Arkansas is about to go on a killing spree with expiring death drugs the “ordinary” use of which amounts to torture. (As this page remains up the executions will almost certainly have been carried out.)

If we are going to insist on judicially authorized killing with a shred of humanity, if that’s not a contraDeath Chamber Gurneydiction in terms, we’d use the guillotine, which is certain, swift, and (because it instantly severs the spinal cord at the neck) medically provably painless. But decapitation grosses us out, so we’d rather impose excruciating deaths that often take long period with unknown drugs of uncertain provenance. If we couldn’t deal with decapitation, we might execute the condemned with overdoses of medical-grade morphine, which is also certain and certainly painless.

But the real problem is the death penalty itself, which is not only barbaric, but freakish (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)) (Stewart, J. concurring), as well as racist. It’s no accident that over 80% of the executions since the Supreme Court allowed the reinstitution of the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) were in the states of the Old Confederacy.  Not that the old South is more racist than, say, Chicago, but the pattern re-creates the historical localization of lynchings.

In view of the immediate occasion of this post being executions in Arkansas, it is telling that of the almost 4,000 documented lynchings,  one Arkansas County, Phillips County, in the Mississippi Delta, accounted for over 6% of all lynching, 243 in all. More than eight in ten American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South.  African Americans make up 13% of the US population, but 42% of the roughly 3,000 people now on death row are black, and 35 percent of those executed since 1976 have been black (figures from the Equal Justice Initiative,; ).

Just to drive the point home, over 75% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims generally are white. ( ) In McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987), the court considered a study by David Baldus of the Univ. of Iowa showing that black killers of white victims were more than four times as likely to receive the death penalty than killers and victims in any other combination. The Court stated that the “racially disproportionate impact” in the Georgia death penalty was not enough to vacate the death sentence without showing a “racially discriminatory purpose” in the particular case. Statistics weren’t enough to raise a constitutional doubt. But they should raise a doubt in our own minds and that of our legislators.
There may be people who deserve to die, although it might be debated who these are. Some people might nominate corrupt politicians, high-ranking war criminals (there is precedent for this at Nuremberg), and crooked financiers of the sort who crashed and burned the world economy in 2000 and 2008, many members of any one of which groups caused far more atrocious suffering than any individual murderer.

But even if someone deserves to die for whatever reason, the question remains open, do we have the moral right to kill them? In view of the cruel, random and racially biased nature of the way the states impose capital punishment, it seems clear that we are not civilized enough to have a death penalty. And if we were, we probably wouldn’t.