Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We, Too, Are Abolitionists: Black History Month, Slavery and the Death Penalty

When one hears the term "abolitionists" one automatically thinks of the courageous men and women, white and African American, who aided runaway slaves fleeing to freedom in the nation's Northern states and Canada.

A parallel abolitionist movement developed in the U.S. of the late 18th century, continuing into the 19th Century and the present, the movement to abolish the death penalty. Religious groups such as Unitarians and Quakers, who were active in the anti-slavery movement, as well as liberal secularists, were also death penalty abolitionists. Several were influenced by a 1767 essay authored by Cesare Beccaria, "On Crimes and Punishment," which said there is no justification for state sponsored executions. The essay led to the death penalty's abolition in Austria and Tuscany.

Thomas Jefferson, who was moved by the essay, supported legislation in Virginia outlawing the death penalty except in cases of murder and treason. It was defeated by one vote. But such enlightened thinking did not apply to slaves; death by execution was a significant tool in maintaining slavery in the U.S., no less so than in Virginia. As activist and scholar Angela Davis noted, "In Virginia before the end of slavery there was only one crime for which a white person could be executed, but there were 66 crimes for which a slave could be executed. Had it not been for slavery, the death penalty would have likely been abolished in America. Slavery became a haven for the death penalty." African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass pointed out in his autobiography that in some states, slaves could be executed for trying to learn to read.

The late A. Leon Higginbotham, the first African American judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, elaborated on the death penalty double standard in his book, "In the Matter of Color, the Colonial Period." If a slave killed his master or another white person, or raped a white woman, the penalty was automatic death. If a white person killed or raped a slave, the punishment might be imprisonment or a fine. Most crimes by whites against slaves went unpunished. The laws carried the clear, if unstated, message, that some lives are worth more than others. This is still true today, as there are more people of color sentenced to death whose victims were white than the reverse. Higginbotham's book posits the idea that our criminal justice system was less about public safety than it was about reinforcing the social and legal inequality of African Americans and other people of color.

To some degree, anti-slavery abolitionists also lived under the threat of execution, as the Southern states viewed the anti-slavery movement as a threat to their intricately interwoven race, caste, and economic infrastructure. A Georgia newspaper's slogan in the years prior to the Civil War was "The cry of the whole South should be Death, Instant Death, to the Abolitionist, whenever he is caught."

In the 20th Century, death penalty abolition was embraced by major civil rights movement figures. Ebony Magazine quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957 as saying, "I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime -- rape or murder included. God's concern is to improve individuals and bring them to the point of conversion. Even criminology has repudiated the motive of punishment in favor of reformation of the criminal. Shall a good God harbor resentment? Since the purpose of jailing a criminal is that of reformation rather than retribution - improving him rather than paying him back for some crime that he has done -- it is highly inconsistent to take the life of a criminal. How can he improve if his life is taken? Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."

Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, said, "As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder and assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. . . An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by legalized murder."

Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King, has said that "The death penalty is a matter of place and race, inequity. . ." and "The state does not have the right to kill, to take a human life; the state does not have the right to enslave. It has the power, but the Bible addresses that. It says 'Not by power, not by might, but by my spirit, says the Lord.' "

Death penalty abolitionists, like their anti-slavery predecessors, have fought to end that which enslaves our humanity. We Americans should honor abolitionists of the past and present not only by remembering them during Black History Month, but by working to repeal capital punishment in all death penalty states. In their memory, we must forever renounce and reject this outdated legacy of slavery.

by Diann Rust-Tierney
Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

1 comment:

Connie L. Nash said...

FEBRUARY 25, 2009: I am so glad for the several posts on top today because they are so in keeping with our Journey vision and so timely. So rather than top and displace these, I am placing some excerpts from some recent news - just in case missed in your reading, group emails, etc - thanx for tuning in, Connie (one of the bloggers on this blogsite)

VIRGINIA: Expanded death penalty bill likely headed for a veto -
Legislation expanding the use of Virginia's death penalty is wending its way to the desk of Gov. Tim Kaine-The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill expanding the death penalty to include capital murder accomplices who share the same intent to kill as the perpetrator on a 24-13 vote.

USA: Citing Cost, States Consider Halting Death Penalty

When Gov. Martin O'Malley appeared before the Maryland Senate last week, he made an unconventional argument that is becoming increasingly popular in cash-strapped states: abolish the death penalty to cut costs.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic who has cited religious opposition to the death penalty in the past, is now arguing that capital cases cost 3 times as much as homicide cases where the death penalty is not sought. "And we can't afford that," he said, "when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime."

Lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire have made the same argument in recent months as they push bills seeking to repeal the death penalty, and experts say such bills have a good chance of passing in Maryland, Montana and New Mexico.

Death penalty opponents say they still face an uphill battle, but they are pleased to have allies raising the economic argument.

Efforts to repeal the death penalty are part of a broader trend in which states are trying to cut the costs of being tough on crime. Virginia and at least 4 other states, for example, are considering releasing nonviolent offenders early to reduce costs.
(Check,but I believe Calif. is also considering or in process of doing the same- Connie, blogger here - Sourch NPR.org news Feb 24)

The economic realities have forced even longtime supporters of the death penalty, like Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, to rethink their positions.

Capital cases are expensive because the trials tend to take longer, they typically require more lawyers and more costly expert witnesses, and they are far more likely to lead to multiple appeals.

In New Mexico, lawmakers who support the repeal bill have pointed out that despite the added expense, most defendants end up with life sentences anyway.

That has been true in Maryland. A 2008 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan public policy group, found that in the 20 years after the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 162 felony-homicide convictions, securing it in 56 cases, most of which were overturned; the rest of the convictions led to prison sentences.

...Eric M. Freedman, a death penalty expert at Hofstra Law School, said studies had shown that plea bargaining rates were roughly the same in states that had the death penalty as in states that did not-"It makes perfect sense that states are trying to spend their criminal justice budgets better," he said, "and that the first place they look to do a cost-benefit analysis is the death penalty."

The costs of death penalty cases can be extraordinarily high-The Urban Institute study of Maryland concluded that because of appeals, it cost as much as $1.9 million more for a state prosecutor to put someone on death row than it did to put a person in prison. A case that resulted in a death sentence cost $3 million, the study found, compared with less than $1.1 million for a case in which the death penalty was not sought-In Kansas, State Senator Carolyn McGinn introduced a bill this month that would abolish the death penalty in cases sentenced after July 1. "We are in such a dire deficit situation, and we need to look at things outside the box to solve our budget problems," said Mrs. McGinn, a Republican.

Kansas is facing a budget shortfall of $199 million, and Mrs. McGinn said that opting for life imprisonment without parole rather than the death penalty could save the state over $500,000 per capital case.
-In Colorado, lawmakers plan to consider a bill this week that would abolish the death penalty and use the savings to create a cold-case unit to investigate the state's roughly 1,400 unsolved murders. While the police must continue investigating these cases, there is no money in the budget for that-

...In 2007, New Jersey became the 1st state in a generation to abolish the death penalty.

That same year, a vote in Maryland to abolish the death penalty came up 1 vote short of passing. In December, however, a state commission on capital punishment recommended that Maryland abolish the death penalty because of the high cost and the danger of executing an innocent person.

(Excerpts from various source including: New York Times) find in full on Rick Halperin's Death Pen News and Updates...