The United States shares something in common with China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. We, like them, use the death penalty. According to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, the United States ranks fifth in executions among every country in the world.
Although not everyone is in agreement about the death penalty, rarely does the topic arise in political debates these days. “[The death penalty is] rarely ever discussed, and it’s never discussed on a federal level. I have not had a single inquiry from the media about it during this U.S. Senate race … until now,” said Paul Sadler, Texas’ Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.
Most people would agree that other issues, like the economy, are more important to Americans than the death penalty right now, but that’s no reason to ignore the topic. Unfortunately, Texas politicians provide little diversity in their views about capital punishment. Republican candidate Ted Cruz, who did not reply to my interview request, supports the death penalty. Sadler, too, agrees with our current use of capital punishment, and thinks his view is common. “I think if most Texans didn’t agree with it,” Sadler said, “we wouldn’t have it as our law.”
The Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, John Jay Myers, opposes the death penalty. “It is impossible,” Myers said, “to make the burden of proof high enough to prevent executing the innocent, and two wrongs do not make a right.” He does think supporters of the death penalty have good intentions, but their efforts are misguided. “The establishment politicians are asking the wrong questions,” he said. “They are asking, ‘How should we penalize violent criminals?’ But they should be asking, ‘What can we do to reduce the causes of violence in the first place?’”
Kristin Houle, the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, became involved with the issue while she was student at the University of Kentucky. Like Myers, she thinks that most Texans have good intentions, but that they’re unaware of the problems with capital punishment. “I think that most Texans want a justice system that is fair, accurate, and reliable,” she said. “I believe most people do not know enough about the realities of the death penalty system and its fatal flaws and failures.”
Voices on our own campus speak out against the death penalty as well. Anne Kuhnen, who leads the Texas Amnesty International’s Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty, considers capital punishment “an unjust and inhumane punishment that is a violation of basic human rights. It does not deter crime, it does not bring justice for crimes, and it is racially and economically biased. It also sends the wrong message to murderers. State killing is just as bad as any other kind of killing. Most importantly, it is not foolproof. Innocent people are regularly convicted.”
Ashley Brandish, a freshman from Dallas, opposes the death penalty as well, mostly for ethical reasons. “As a member of a moral community,” she said, “we have interests in life, and to deprive someone of that is and should be considered morally prohibited regardless of the circumstances.”
But why does it seem like most UT students ignore the issue altogether? “I think most UT students don’t think much about this issue because it doesn’t affect them,” Kuhnen said. “However, I’m firmly convinced that if more people realized what a terrible practice it is, and how it looks to the rest of the world that we still use capital punishment, they would not support it. I also think if students realized how much it costs despite how ineffective it really is in deterring capital crimes they might start to question it more.”
It will be no easy task to get Texas to eliminate the death penalty. Since 1976, Texas has executed far more people than any other state, accounting for 487 of America’s 1,309 executions. The death penalty is literally a matter of life and death, and therefore it is an issue that needs to be discussed. Brian Cutter, a philosophy graduate student, said, “At the federal level, the issue of the death penalty is hardly addressed at all. It hasn’t come up once in the presidential debates.” Unless we as citizens show that the issue is important to us — which it should be — our politicians will continue to ignore it.
Especially in Texas in an election year, we must examine the use of capital punishment. Gov. Rick Perry has ordered the executions of 234 people, including some, like Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004, who were convicted on questionable evidence.
Minorities are particularly hurt by the death penalty — although African-Americans alone make up nearly half of all homicide victims, 77 percent of victims in cases that resulted in capital punishment were white. “For one, there’s not enough checks and balances on the whole process,” Cutter said. “The current implementation of the death penalty in Texas is unjust, especially in its disproportionate targeting of minorities and poor people. However, even if the implementation of capital punishment could be improved, it still wouldn’t be morally justifiable.”
There is reason for hope. The last four years have seen fewer death sentences than any time after 1976 in the United States. America’s youth, especially us Longhorns, I hope, could lead the way to a world without capital punishment. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In order to uphold America’s fairness and overall humanity, we must kill the death penalty, or at least discuss it.