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The Death Penalty Lottery

Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis has announced he will sign a state bill to abolish capital punishment. Lawmakers in Colorado decided to end the death penalty because it was expensive, arbitrary, rarely used, and risked the execution of the innocent. 

It is also unnecessary. Offenders who commit murder can be sentenced to other severe penalties, such as life without parole, at a lower cost and with less risk.

To me, Colorado’s move to get rid of the death penalty makes good sense, particularly in today’s criminal justice landscape. Twenty-one states (twenty-two with the addition of Colorado) have fully abolished capital punishment. Five states who retain capital punishment have less than three people on death row. Fifteen death penalty states, including most recently Ohio, have pending legislative bills to abolish capital punishment.  While most of these bills will not pass this term, abolition seems to be on the minds of state officials. 

Nathaniel Woods, executed March 5, 2020

But while Colorado was abolishing the death penalty, Alabama was busy executing Nathaniel Woods. Woods, a forty-two-year-old black man, was convicted in 2004 after a high profile, racially charged trial involving the shooting death of three white officers in Birmingham Alabama.  Woods’ co-defendant was the actual shooter, but Woods was sentenced to death by a non-unanimous jury.  Yesterday, March 5, 2020, the State of Alabama put Woods to death despite compelling claims of factual innocence and allegations of police corruption and misconduct. 

Then there is Tennessee, which has scheduled six executions for 2020.  Tennessee has not executed that many people in a single year since 1948.

They are moving ahead full-steam.

On February 20, 2020, Nicholas Sutton died by Tennessee’s electric chair. His execution came despite pleas to spare his life that came from the victims’ family members, five jurors who originally voted for his death sentence, and seven correctional staff members. Sutton was described as a changed man who had actually saved multiple lives during his incarceration. But no matter.

Pervis Payne is another man on Tennessee’s 2020 execution list. Payne has maintained his innocence for over thirty years.  His lawyers say they have discovered new and compelling evidence – previously undisclosed by the prosecution – that could prove his innocence through DNA testing.  Let’s hope they get a chance to do the testing.  

And don’t even get me started on Texas, which single-handedly leads the nation in executions. They already performed one execution in February, with two more scheduled for later this month.

The ugly truth is that the decision to use the death penalty comes down to geography and the people elected to state office.  Not the crime.  

Alabama. Tennessee. Texas. Colorado.

Whether you live or die shouldn’t come down to a geographic lottery. And justice shouldn’t be as arbitrary as throwing darts at a map. 

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this. I live in Tennessee where we are very concerned by the promised uptick in executions this year. Locally, we are working with Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty to address our state legislature, currently on excluding those with severe mental illness from the death penalty. I look forward to reading your book and sharing it with others. What you are doing emboldens us in our efforts to bring about real change.

    1. Thank you for all that you are doing. I was surprised by the TN State AG’s seemingly sudden request to schedule nine executions. Your attack on the execution of people with severe mental illness is an important fight. I’m always interested in learning more about what is happening around the country in terms of the death penalty, so please continue to let me know of your efforts!

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