The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, is decreasing around the world. According to data from Amnesty International, 2020 saw a 26% decrease from 2019, which represents the lowest number of executions recorded in the past decade. 108 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, while 144 countries have abolished it in law or practice. Even as executions go down, questions about the death penalty’s place in society remain. Does it actually deter violent crime? How many innocent people have been executed? And how does living in a society with the death penalty affect humanity’s psyche? Here are five articles about the death penalty:
By: Phillip Morris
Photography: Martin Schoeller
In this 2021 article and photo essay, author Phillip Morris interviews people who faced execution after being falsely convicted. The subjects include Kwame Ajumyu, who lives within walking distance of Morris. Ajamu was sentenced to death in 1975 when he was just 17. The primary testimony against Ajamu came from a 13-year old boy, who claimed he saw Ajamu and another young man attack Harold Franks, a money order salesman. No evidence – physical or forensic – connected Ajamu to the murder. He still received a death sentence. 39 years later, it came out that the 13-year old witness had immediately tried to recant his statement, but police told him his parents would be charged with perjury. In 2003, Ajamu was released on parole after 27 years in prison. Morris’ article includes other stories as well as informational graphics on the death penalty.
NPR Fresh Air transcript
In this transcript from Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviews Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean is known for her activism against the death penalty and her book Dead Man Walking, which was adapted into a 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon. In 1957, Prejean joined the congregation of St. Joseph and by the 1980s, she was focusing on the poor and imprisoned. In 1982, she became a spiritual advisor to a murderer on death row. She’s accompanied six people to their executions. Her latest memoir from 2019 – River of Fire – explores her spiritual journey. In the interview, Prejean talks about her life, including what she first imagined her life would be like as a nun, her views on the church, what drew her to social justice, and more.
By: Bharat Malkani
A senior lecturer at The School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University, Malkani argues that the fight for racial justice in the United States – most recently manifested by the protests in summer 2020 – requires the abolition of the death penalty. This article explains how America’s history of lynchings, slavery, and racial violence are linked to capital punishment. As an example, when campaigns against lynching caused a reduction in extrajudicial killings in the 1920s and 1930s, state-sanctioned executions increased. Racism is still baked into the death penalty today. Data shows a person is much more likely to receive a death sentence for killing a white person versus killing a Black person. If a Black person kills a white person, their chance of getting a death sentence increases even more. Malkani is the author of Slavery and the Death Penalty: A Study in Abolition (2018).
For those curious about why so many activists and organizations oppose the death penalty, this piece from the American Civil Liberties Union explains their stance. It first describes capital punishment in the modern era beginning in 1972. The Supreme Court stated that under then-existing laws, the death penalty violated the Eighth and Fourteen Amendments. However, four years later, new state capital punishment statutes had been written and several hundred had been sentenced to death. In 1976, the Supreme Court changed course, saying that “the punishment of death does not invariably violate the Constitution.” The piece then lists and explores the ACLU’s objections to the death penalty, including that the death penalty doesn’t significantly deter crime, it’s not applied fairly, and it’s barbaric to everyone involved.
By: James Glenday and Emily Olson
For 17 years, Jerry Givens was Virginia’s chief executioner. During his career, 25 prisoners were executed by lethal injection while 37 died in the electric chair. Not even his family knew what his job was; Givens was ordered to keep it secret. In this article from 2019, Givens describes what it was like to carry out an execution, from the physical exam that made sure the prisoner was healthy to the walk to the death chamber before 9:00 pm. After a death row inmate narrowly avoided execution – and was later exonerated of the crime completely – Givens started to doubt his role in the system. A 4-year stint in jail himself – as well as his faith – also played a part in transforming Givens into an anti-death penalty activist. The article also discusses how the death penalty (and support of it) is declining. Jerry Givens passed away in 2020.