The Death Penalty Makes the Racism and Error of the Criminal Legal System Permanent

PHOENIX, Ariz. — A group of 18 local and national racial justice and civil rights organizations sent Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey a letter today asking him to not move forward with setting new execution dates. The letter comes a day after the State Attorney General took steps to request two execution dates from the Arizona Supreme Court — one for Clarence Dixon and another for Frank Atwood.

Arizona has not held an execution in seven years. The letter points out that when the state last carried out the death penalty, it badly botched four executions in as many years. Black people account for just 5.2 percent of the state’s population, but 16 percent of the state’s 116-person death row. Arizona has sentenced nearly a quarter of all Native Americans facing the death penalty in the United States. 

“We have seen in Arizona — like the rest of the country — that it simply is not possible to carry out the death penalty in a way that isn’t racist and error-prone,” said Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Arizona. “At least 10 innocent people have been sentenced to death in this state, and we have a history of botched executions. Of course, people of color disproportionately bear the brunt of the criminal legal system’s failings, including with the death penalty. We are urging Governor Ducey to rethink his decision to carry these executions out and have this stain on his legacy.”

The letter states: “Since 1973, at least 185 innocent people have been exonerated from death rows across the country. Ten of these people were wrongfully convicted in Arizona. Black people and people of color are disproportionately victims of wrongful conviction and are sentenced to death at much higher rates than white people. Nationwide, people convicted of killing white people are 17 times more likely to be executed than people convicted of killing Black people. This disparity is a somber reminder that the death penalty evolved in this country from lynching and cannot be extricated from this racist past.”

“The myth that the death penalty in Arizona is reserved for the ‘worst of the worst’ ignores the facts,” said Jovana Renteria, co-executive director at Puente Human Rights Movement. “The data is clear that the race of the person who commits a crime, the race of the victim, the quality of representation, and the county where that crime was committed has a huge impact on the kind of sentence that’s handed down. Over the last 12 years, 84 percent of the death sentences in this state have come from just one county — Maricopa County. When it is so clear that this punishment is being used in a discriminatory and unfair way, it is deeply concerning that the state would move forward to set the first executions in nearly a decade.”

The full letter is online here.

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