How the death penalty highlights the racist criminal justice system
Last Thursday Ledell Lee was denied the opportunity to conduct DNA testing that could prove his innocence. He was then was executed in Arkansas’ push to execute 8 people in 11 days before their supply of sedatives used for lethal injection expired.
Officially, Lee was denied this DNA testing opportunity because the idea was brought up too late. Innocence Project Senior Attorney Nina Morrison says there are a lot of problems with that argument, including the facts that “it’s never too late to find out if you’re executing the wrong man for a crime he didn’t commit. The other big problem is that Mr. Lee never had lawyers before two weeks ago who knew anything about DNA and presented his claim to the courts.”
Though Ledell chose not to make a statement in the execution chamber, one of Lee’s attorneys, Lee Short, described in the Arkansas Times how Lee spent his last hours before he was executed. Short wrote:
“At 630 he frantically began dividing his belongings, which fit in a cardboard box… Ledell willed away his property, which included saltines, cups, and even his condiments. That moment was more than I could take. As tears rolled down my cheeks, there was a friendly face who offered me a Dr. Pepper and said no more.”
I recently met with Staci Pratt, the Executive Director for Missourians Against The Death Penalty (MADPMO), a nonprofit working to abolish the death penalty in Missouri. In 2015, four states (Missouri, Texas, Georgia and Florida) made up 93% of all executions in the U.S.
The director, Staci, tells me that, conservatively, 4.1 10% (or 1 in 25) of those sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. 158 individuals have been found innocent and released from death row since 1973. As a percentage of all death sentences it’s around 1%, but if the rate of innocence is 4 times the rate of exoneration and an unknown number of people have been wrongfully executed.
In Missouri, her organization has helped support two innocent men, Joe Amrine and Reggie Griffin, who had been on death row for 16 years and 28 years respectively. They also played an important role in seeking and obtaining a commutation for Kimber Edwards just three days before his scheduled execution.
They now work with the organization giving speeches about their experiences. Though some states do, the state of Missouri did not compensate them for their years spent in prison. Without this compensation, the men have worked to move on, and getting jobs has proven difficult due to their past record. Even though they were confirmed innocent, it’s still tough to get a job with a resume like that. Likewise, they suffer trauma from years on death row. Imagine the suffering of a person expecting to die at the hands of the state, especially an innocent person.
Staci went on to say that people are not put on death row at random, and that income is one of the most important factors determining whether the death penalty will be issued. The majority of all people in capital punishment cases cannot afford their own attorney.
As far as how much it costs everyone else in the country: in the U.S. maintaining each death row prisoner on average costs taxpayers $90,000 more per year than a prisoner in general population.Though Missouri is one of the states that doesn’t house death row inmates separately from the rest of the inmate population, nevertheless costs are considerable. These costs generally stem from the need for two trials in capital cases (one determines guilt or innocence and the other determines the penalty), as well as lengthy appeals mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Kansas examined the total costs associated with the judicial process involved in capital cases. It found that capital cases are 70% more expensive than non death penalty cases, and that the median death penalty case costs taxpayers $1.26 million.
In regards to mental illness, executing someone who is determined to be “insane” violates the U.S. constitution, yet the Association of Mental Health has determined that at least 5–10% of those on death row are mentally ill.
Staci takes a breath from this stream of information, and turns to me. “This work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. So, how do you end up here today?”
I try to sip my coffee, but it’s still too hot. I begin by telling her how I read Angela Davis’ book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” earlier this year, and it ignited my opinions, and my interest in learning more about the criminal justice system, and the racism that seems to keep these institutions afloat.
Are prisons modern-day slavery?
When I first read “Are Prisons Obsolete?,” I thought this concept was a radical idea. But the more that I have interacted with the prison system, and seen that the population is predominantly people of color coming from backgrounds of poverty, I can’t help but see institutional racism.
We need a new system. We need to revamp society.
Across state lines of Missouri and Kansas, the views on the death penalty vary greatly, even if the politics are not so different. Kansas has 10 people on death row, though they have not carried out an execution since 1976, while Missouri has been one of the most actively executing states in recent years. Missouri currently has 25 people on death row and someone executed Mark Christeson this year.
According the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, for every ten executions, one person has been set free after being exonerated.
Why is this, I ask Staci.
Racism in the Criminal Justice System
One important factor she mentions is that Kansas was historically a free state, while Missouri was a state that supported slavery and associated acts of racial terror. The states historically with the most lynchings are also generally the states that maintain the death penalty. She mentions that Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative has a compelling analysis of this issue. (It is titled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror).
“Racism in the criminal justice system is highlighted with the issue of the death penalty. In the state of Missouri, homicides with white victims are seven times more likely to result in a punishment of the death penalty as those of African American victims,” Staci says with emphasis.
Our meeting ended soon after, and we both walked back out into the free world. Or was it still so free after learning what I now knew?