What's at Stake

The death penalty in America is a broken process from start to finish. Death sentences are predicted not by the heinousness of the crime but by the poor quality of the defense lawyers, the race of the accused or the victim, and the county and state in which the crime occurred. From 1976 to 2015, 1,392 executions occurred in the United States, and 995 of them took place in the South. Time and time again, we have proven that the criminal justice system fails to protect the innocent and persons with serious mental disabilities and illnesses from execution. Even the administration of executions is utterly flawed: Every method of execution comes with an intolerably high risk of extreme pain and torture.

Public support for the death penalty is falling; the numbers of new death sentences and executions are both rapidly decreasing. The time has come for America to end this failed experiment. 

Current Issues

Execution Methods

Several recent executions have proven that lethal injection can often be painful and prone to mishaps that lead to torture. In recent years, as pharmaceutical manufacturers have withdrawn permission to use their drugs in executions, states have frequently failed to find safe alternatives and been forced to shroud their executions under cloaks of secrecy. The result has been a lack of accountability for state governments in relation to botched executions.

Innocence and the Death Penalty

The worst horror of the criminal justice system is the execution of an innocent person. Time and time again, evidence has shown an unacceptably high risk of convicting the innocent in a criminal justice system that is so flawed. That risk becomes particularly unacceptable when execution is at stake. Between 1973 and 2015, there were 148 exonerations of innocent people from death rows in the modern system. Research suggests that the actual number of innocent people who have been sentenced to death is far higher and that one in every 25 defendants sentenced to death is likely innocent.

Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

The execution of a person with a mental illness or intellectual disability fails to advance any legitimate government purpose. Such disorders often heighten the possibility of a wrongful conviction or death sentence because the accused does not have access to resources to properly navigate the justice system. A civilized society forfeits its moral authority by executing people with mental or intellectual disabilities.

Prosecutorial Misconduct and Capital Punishment

To win convictions and death sentences, too many police officers and “tough on crime” prosecutors, seated through election, cut corners with the Constitution. There is incentive for them to hide evidence favorable to the defense and offer juries false testimony. The death sentences that result from prosecutorial misconduct represent a gross perversion of justice and the height of arbitrariness.

Racial Disparities and the Death Penalty

Racial disparities, permanently intertwined with the death penalty in America because of its history of lynching, continue to taint capital punishment today. Study after study confirms that the race of the victim often drives death penalty decisions. Prosecutors are far more likely to seek the death penalty and juries are far more likely to return death sentences when the victims are white than when they are black, and studies show that prosecutors routinely prevent blacks from serving on capital juries.


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