Another Step Toward Abolition

By: Alice Kim

Without question, the machinery of death has been dealt several hard blows in the last several months. Abolitionists scored a major victory when Governor Parris Glendenning declared a one-year moratorium in Maryland last May. Then in June, the Supreme Court not only banned the execution of the mentally retarded but ruled that juries, not judges, should have the authority to impose death sentences. Both rulings are reversals of prior decisions and will impact hundreds of death row cases. Only a month later, U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff ruled that the federal death penalty was unconstitutional because "innocent people are sentenced to death."

Undoubtedly, Rakoff’s ruling will be appealed, but it has added another voice to the chorus of criticism surrounding the death penalty. In his recent ruling, Rakoff, a former prosecutor, concluded that the death penalty is "tantamount to foreseeable, state-sponsored murder of innocent human beings."

These recent victories are the result of a sea change in public opinion about the death penalty that has taken place since the moratorium on executions was imposed in Illinois in January 2000.

Millions of Americans were outraged to learn that innocent people were being sentenced to death when the Illinois moratorium put the issue in the national spotlight. Many politicians, who had previously touted a tough on crime agenda, began to respond. For example, the Innocence Protection Act--a bill that would provide greater access to DNA testing for prisoners and improve the quality of legal representation in capital cases--chas been endorsed by a majority of House members and approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Initially, most legislators were hesitant to back even these modest reforms.

But questions about the fairness of the death penalty have moved beyond the issue of innocence. In Maryland, where nine of the 13 death row prisoners are Black, racism was the cutting edge issue that activists raised to build pressure for a moratorium.

Moreover, Illinois--the first state to halt executions--stood alone until the moratorium in Maryland was declared. With the Maryland moratorium, Illinois is no longer isolated as the only state that has halted executions.

This has been incredibly important to our movement because it shows that the problems with the death penalty are not limited to one state, but that they exist in Maryland and on every death row throughout the country.

The Maryland victory shows that future moratoriums in other states are possible. And that abolition is still on the table.

The recent gains of our movement show that the cracks in the death penalty are deep. But we still have a fight on our hands.

In Illinois, the death penalty hangs in the balance. Politicians who are eager to bring back the death penalty are pushing to "reform" the current death penalty system as a way to end the moratorium. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor in Illinois are pro-death penalty. As it stands, they say that they support various reforms to the death penalty but do not support abolition.

In Maryland, a study focusing on racial disparity of the state’s death penalty system--due out in September--will likely raise the question of reforms as well.

What abolitionists do in Illinois and Maryland in the coming months will be critical to keeping the death penalty out of these states.

Although abolitionists often support reforms that target the injustices of the criminal justice system, the death penalty cannot be reformed. There is no such thing as a kinder, gentler death penalty. It is up to abolitionists to keep spreading this message.

Pro-death penalty forces have not been able to gain ground--even in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. This is encouraging. But there are those in high places who would like nothing better than to bring back the machinery of death in full force.

Recently, the Washington Post reported that Attorney General John Ashcroft has aggressively pursued the federal death penalty since taking office. In fact, Ashcroft overruled his own prosecutors in 12 cases and ordered them to seek a death sentence against their own recommendations.

Ashcroft is not alone is his commitment to the death penalty. Vowing to block any efforts to abolish the death penalty in Maryland soon after the moratorium was won, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D) said, "If there’s a gallows, I’ll pull the lever. If there’s a gas chamber, I’ll turn the valve. If it’s lethal injection, I’ll insert the needle."

We have our work cut out for us. We have to push ahead--to ensure that supporters of the death penalty are not able to turn back the tide. As we know, if things do not move forward, they will move back.