ACLU Opposes Death Penalty for Anti-Gay Attackers in Matthew Shepard Case

Affiliate: ACLU of Wyoming
January 21, 1999 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Wyoming
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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the death penalty for those who murdered Matthew Shepard just as we oppose the death penalty for all people — because our system of justice is incapable of imposing it equally, because our system makes mistakes and always will, and because the ACLU believes the state simply should not have the power to take away human life.

The killing of Matthew Shepard was a horrible crime. The circumstances of his death are a brutal reminder of the consequences of hatred toward lesbians and gay men and the sorry fact that our churches, leaders, and governments do very little to stem it. Those who killed Matthew Shepard should be punished for it. But another death will solve nothing. And those who have failed to do anything about the atmosphere that made Shepard’s murder possible should not be able to assuage their own guilt with another killing.

The thirst for justice in the Shepard case should not obscure the fact that the death penalty is wrong, that we as a society are incapable of imposing it fairly, and that it should therefore never be used.

It is by now painfully clear that racism and unfairness are the only consistent factors in the administration of the death penalty in America. Overall, the total number of death sentences imposed, about 300 a year, still represents only about one percent of all homicides known to the police. Of all those convicted on a charge of criminal homicide, only three percent — about one in 33 — are eventually sentenced to death.

Out of that three percent — almost 4,000 persons executed since 1930 — more than 50 percent were black. Yet African Americans make up approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population. Other minorities also receive death sentences disproportionate to their numbers in the population. This is not primarily because minorities commit more murders, but because they are more often sentenced to death when they do.

Poor people are also far more likely to be sentenced to death than those who can afford the high costs of private investigators, psychiatrists and expert criminal lawyers. Some observers have pointed out that the term “capital punishment” is ironic because “only those without capital get the punishment.”

The record is also clear that our system makes mistakes, that innocent people are condemned and executed. State killing of innocent men and women is simply an unacceptable price to pay for whatever goal the death penalty is thought to achieve.

In the last several years, the ACLU has participated in several cases in which we believe the death penalty was unfairly imposed on someone because he was gay. Just last year, we submitted a brief in a case in which the Supreme Court of Missouri had earlier ruled that sexual orientation can be considered in deciding whether to impose the death penalty because it has a bearing on a defendant’s “character.”

In a society where prejudice plays a major role in criminal justice in general and the death penalty in particular, lesbians and gay men, like every despised minority, have good reason to fear — and oppose — the death penalty.

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