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Death Penalty in the U.S.: Desmond Tutu Asks "Why?"

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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March 18, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

The venerable Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, can still remember a day from his childhood growing up in the abject poverty of a South African township when he happened to stumble upon a tattered old copy of Ebony magazine.

Inside that particular issue were stories and images of a man named Jackie Robinson, and of a baseball team called the Brooklyn Dodgers, stories and images that Tutu says were captivating for a young man who wasn’t normally allowed to dream very far beyond the seemingly hopeless segregation that defined the world in which he lived.

“I didn’t know baseball from ping-pong,” the man who would grow up to become the primary architect of South Africa’s historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission said last week in front of an audience at the Riverside Church in New York City, one of the nation’s most prominent Protestant cathedrals. “But that didn’t matter. I can’t tell you how meaningful it was for me to know that someone who looked like me could overcome such obstacles and play Major League Baseball.”

And so began a love affair with the United States, the country that for Tutu and his contemporaries symbolized hope and the promise of equality, and which was equally epitomized by the exploits of the heavyweight prize fighter Joe Louis and the resilient spirit of the civil rights movement.

“All of us kids knew by heart the Gettysburg Address,” Tutu said.

One can imagine, then, what a punch to the gut it might have been to find out that the same United States that gave birth to democracy and the concept of equal rights for all people, also endorsed the death penalty, one of the world’s gravest injustices.

“It was a disillusionment that is hard to describe to know that this land that we adored had this huge blight on it — that you believed in the death penalty,” Tutu said. “I simply could not imagine how that could be so.”

Tutu joined noted author and historian Thomas Cahill at Riverside last week to discuss the life and execution of Dominique Green, killed by the state of Texas in 2004. But Texas could not kill Green before he underwent an extraordinary journey of personal transformation which began with his abuse, neglect and eventual abandonment as a child, and resulted in his blossoming into a man who helped numerous other prisoners endure the torturous nature of death row. Green’s poetry and artwork have been displayed at exhibits around the world. Cahill’s recent book is entitled A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green.

Tutu’s searing words against the senseless execution of a man who never had a real shot in this life, and against the death penalty in any instance in this country, could not have been timelier.

Budget shortfalls that have plagued statehouses from coast to coast have provided the backdrop for the most significant abolition movement in recent memory. Because of the exorbitant cost to taxpayers of maintaining the death penalty, legislatures in Colorado, Montana, Kansas, New Hampshire and Maryland have all recently debated ending the use of the death penalty. And in New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson must decide by midnight tonight whether to sign a bill passed by the state’s Senate last week that would end the use of capital punishment in that state.

But the fiscal problems that prompted these states to consider abolishing the death penalty threaten to obscure the social and moral implications of our nation’s continued reliance on executions.

The death penalty is indeed an unjustifiable expense, but even more significant are the serious and rampant flaws inherent to our capital punishment system that simply cannot be ignored. The 130 innocent people who have been exonerated during the past 35 years after being sentenced to death speak to the gamble that is taken every time an execution is carried out. Study after study has shown that the death penalty is plagued by racial, economic and geographic discrimination. And there is absolutely no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime.

One can’t help but wonder why we remain so committed to its use.

“Why do you do this when you are such a wonderful people,” Tutu said to Riverside’s congregation last week. “Why? Why? Why, when you are such an incredible people. Just look at Nov. 4. Look at what you have done. Whether you like it or not, you are part of a system and it is turning you into a violent people. Please, for your own sakes and for the sake of the world, allow the better side of yourselves, your generosity, your compassion, to shine through. Please.”

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