The Death Penalty Is Dead Wrong


By: Marlene Martin

The 99th reason to get rid of the death penalty was recently released and walked off Florida’s death row on January 3.

Juan Roberto Melendez spent nearly 18 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. This year, he joined the nearly 100 death row prisoners nationwide who have been found innocent and released. When he was finally exonerated -- thanks to the chance discovery of a crucial piece of evidence by a lawyer who was cleaning his office -- he became the 22nd death row prisoner released in Florida, the state that leads the country in exonerations.

A month later, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of a Florida man who came within three hours of death while it considers a legal issue "that could ultimately lead to the state’s death penalty law being declared unconstitutional," reported the Orlando Tribune. The justices will rule on whether judges, rather than juries, can sentence people to death -- a practice that exists in nine states. Following the Supreme Court announcement, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush canceled a second scheduled execution, reinforcing the point that there is a de facto moratorium in the state.

Meanwhile, the scheduled execution of Maryland death row inmate Steven Oken was also halted while the U.S. Supreme Court decides on his appeal. It is unlikely that any other death warrants will be signed in Maryland before the justices make their ruling.

This is good news to the growing number of activists who have been fighting these executions. Their influence can be seen in the comment of a judge who dissented in the ruling that stopped Oken’s execution -- he said the death penalty should be abolished because "it simply is not worth the aggravation."

We do think that the death penalty is "aggravating" -- but for different reasons. We find it "aggravating" that innocent people are sent to death row. We find it "aggravating" that 40 percent of all death row prisoners are African American. And we find it "aggravating" -- and also disgusting and morally indefensible -- that, while the death penalty does nothing to deter crime, we continue to hear from politicians that it makes society safer.

This is the reality of the death penalty. And we mean to tell these politicians that we want them to recognize this reality -- and stop the death penalty.

Since 2002 is an election year, Campaigners in a number of states are taking the opportunity to bring our message to the politicians. In Atlanta, a group of Campaigners disrupted Gov. Roy Barnes’ State of the State address -- as part of their new "Barnes Storming" effort. And in Illinois, 40 people protested outside a debate of gubernatorial candidates.

This is a good first step, but we have a long distance to go. What we do is pivotal right now, because activism can tip the scales of justice in our direction.

As Rev. Jesse Jackson told an audience of 600 that came out for a Chicago rally to mark the second anniversary of the Illinois moratorium: "You couldn’t really fix slavery. You couldn’t modify it...We had to abolish the slavery system. Let’s abolish the death penalty."