Cranking up the Death Row conveyor belt makes America no safer or more moral

The crimes of the offenders are often horrifying, but capital punishment will never be carried out in the United States in a way that is fair and just.

SHARE Cranking up the Death Row conveyor belt makes America no safer or more moral
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A man opposed to capital punishment protests outside a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, on July 13, the day before the killer Daniel Lewis Lee was executed there.

Michael Conroy/AP Photos

Let’s understand the loathsomeness of the three men the federal government recently executed before moving on to why we believe the government should execute nobody.

Daniel Lewis Lee, put to death by lethal injection on July 14 at a federal prison in Indiana, was a stone-cold killer. In 1996, he and another man killed a gun dealer, his wife and their little girl, suffocating the family with plastic bags during a robbery to get money for a white supremacist organization.

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Wesley Ira Purkey, executed at the same prison two days after Lee, was no prize, either. In 1998, he raped, murdered and dismembered a 16-year-old girl.

Dustin Lee Honken, executed at the prison on July 17, was a maker of methamphetamine who killed a federal informant. Honken took the man, the man’s girlfriend and her two young daughters into the woods and shot them all. He had dug their graves in advance.

These horrible men, their guilt beyond doubt, were the first people to be executed by the federal government in 17 years. And now two killers from Illinois, who appear to be no less reprehensible, are among those in line to be executed next. Ronald Mikos, a podiatrist, killed a former patient to cover up a Medicare fraud scam. Jorge Torrez, a serial rapist and murderer, killed two little girls in Zion.

We want to be upfront, spelling out the horrific acts of these men, because too often advocates for abolishing the death penalty gloss over the crimes committed. Yet for a host of reasons grounded in fairness and justice, we continue to believe it is tragic that the Justice Department has restarted the federal death chamber conveyor belt.

Like being struck by lightning

The strongest legal argument against the death penalty in the United States is that it is imposed arbitrarily, as a matter of bad luck, making a mockery of the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment. There are some 16,000 murders a year in the U.S., yet only 22 murderers last year, all of them men, were executed.

Who gets executed and who is spared has little to do with a defendant’s actual culpability and everything to do with where he committed his crime, the color of his skin, the color of his victim’s skin and the quality of his lawyer.

The death penalty in America, that is to say, is a fundamentally racist institution.

While all three men executed by the federal government in July were white, about two-thirds of all those executed in the United States each year are African American or members of other minority groups. But only about one in six of their crimes are against African American victims, though half of all murder victims are Black.

To further appreciate the arbitrariness of the death penalty, look no further than Daniel Lewis Lee, the man executed by the feds on July 14. Lee had an accomplice who was equally culpable in the murders of the gun dealer and his family. But the accomplice was sentenced to life in prison, not death.

As Justice Potter Stewart argued in a landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision striking down the death penalty as it then was practiced, who gets put on Death Row is as arbitrary as “being struck by lightning.” And, as Justice Stephen Breyer later put it, “the arbitrary imposition of punishment is the antithesis of the rule of law.”

Wrongful convictions

Adding to the problem, a certain number of people on Death Row are likely innocent. Since 1973, more than 165 wrongly convicted people on Death Row have been set free. Often, they were convicted on the basis of specious witness testimony or a coerced confession, and they were exonerated thanks to new and irrefutable DNA evidence.

It is better to not execute 1,000 guilty men than to execute one innocent man.

Inhumanly cruel long delays

Because the danger of executing an innocent person is so real, the appeals process in death penalty cases typically drags on for years or decades. Lee had been on Death Row for 24 years, Purkey for 22 years, and Honken for 15 years.

That in itself — the protracted length of time an inmate must wait to be executed — has been deemed cruel and unusual punishment by a number of lower courts and several Supreme Court justices. The long delays, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in 2009, subject inmates to “decades of especially severe, dehumanizing conditions of confinement” and undermine the deterrent value of the death penalty.

It’s really a no-win choice for a civilized society. The state can carry out executions more quickly and risk putting innocent people to death, or it can continue the long delays while looking away from the cruelty.

A far better path would be for the federal government to join 18 states, including Illinois, and the District of Columbia in abolishing the death penalty. Every country in Europe save one, Belarus, has abolished the death penalty, yet in every one of those countries the violent crime rate is lower than in the United States.

We’re tempted to make one final argument against the death penalty: The possibility of redemption in even the darkest soul. But maybe that’s best left to theologians and ethicists.

We will say this: Whenever another person is executed in the United States, we feel no more righteous or safe. We feel, as Americans, only smaller.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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