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To Honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Abolish the Death Penalty

Martin Luther King, Jr. Statue
Photo by Luke Zhang on Unsplash

This Monday, Americans will celebrate the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through acts of service. To truly honor him, we should call for an end to capital punishment.

The Death Penalty is Racist

In 1958, Dr. King led a protest in Alabama over the execution of a black 16-year-old child convicted and sentenced to die by an all-white jury for the alleged rape of a white woman. King noted the severity and inequality of the death penalty: “Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rarely ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence.” 

Not much has changed since then.

The death penalty continues to be mired in racism. It is biased towards white victims; 75% of cases ending in executions involved the murder of a white person, even though black and white people are murder victims about equally. Of all murder cases, black defendants who kill white victims are most likely to be executed

The entire death penalty process is infected by racial bias. Black defendants continue to be tried by all white juries or by juries who are not representative of the community. Their sentences are affirmed by a Supreme Court that struggles to address racism in our justice system.  

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was once asked, “Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?” Dr. King quickly responded, “I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime.” 

We shouldn’t either. 

Public Support for the Death Penalty is Waning

Thirty-seven states have not executed anyone in at least 10 years; 23 states have abolished capital punishment altogether. 

Public support for the death penalty has waned over time, emboldening some state governors to end the practice of capital punishment in their states. Governor Kate Brown commuted the sentences of all seventeen people on Oregon’s death row just before she left office. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, who reluctantly oversees the nation’s largest death row population, has imposed a moratorium on executions and is working to dismantle his state’s capital punishment in its entirety. 

Yet, former confederate states seem committed to business as usual. Missouri rang in the New Year by executing Amber McClaughlin. Texas and Oklahoma were responsible for over half of executions that took place last year. Finding lethal injection drugs to be in short supply, states like Mississippi and Florida passed secrecy laws to hide the identities of lethal injection drug manufacturers. 

Execution methods are also problematic. Last year was dubbed the “year of botched executions.” Alabama’s recent executions were barbarous. A writer for the Atlantic described the botched execution of Joe James Jr. as pure “carnage” noting that James’ “hands and wrists had been burst by needles” during a “lengthy and painful death.”

Arizona is planning to bring back the gas chamber as a method of execution. Alabama is thinking about doing the same.

Dr. King would never have stood by while state governments tortured and gassed their own citizens. 

Neither should we.

The Death Penalty is a Stain on MLK’s Legacy 

Most fundamentally, the death penalty is morally wrong. 

Killing as punishment for killing is an unnecessary exercise in state-sponsored brutality. It lowers our standing in the international arena, where most democratic states have long ago abolished capital punishment because it is seen as violating human rights.

Dr. King warned: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

It also means that we run the risk of getting it wrong. 

Just last year, Samuel Randolph IV was exonerated from Pennsylvania’s death row, after serving more than twenty years in prison. In total, 190 people have been exonerated from death row since 1973. Others with strong evidence of innocence were not so fortunate.

If “the moral arc of the universe is long, but bends toward justice,” then capital punishment has no place in that arc. To honor Dr. King, we should encourage President Biden to make good on his promise to “eliminate the death penalty.” and tell state representatives in death penalty states that the death penalty has no place in a civilized society.

Capital punishment is antithetical to King’s vision of a just, equal, and fair society. On MLK Day, we should demand its abolition.   

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