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California court confirms futility of the death penalty

Death penalty(Cross-posted from the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty).

By Kristin Collins

Yesterday, a California court confirmed what we have known in North Carolina for years: The death penalty is so dysfunctional as to be not just unconstitutional, but futile.

The ruling said of a system in which inmates sit on death row for decades, and only a tiny percentage of those sentenced to death are ever executed:

“… for too long now, the promise has been an empty one … It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed.”

Lest anyone offer the “simple” solution of executing people more quickly, let’s pause to remember the more than 140 innocent people who have been freed from death row. Seven of them were in North Carolina, and some spent more than a decade on death row before their innocence was recognized.

North Carolina’s system is no different from California’s. Since 1977, when the modern death penalty began, nearly 400 men and women have been sentenced to death, and only 43 have been executed.

Of the 153 people currently on death row, 126 — more than 80 percent! — have been there over a decade. Of those, 34 have been there more than two decades.

And we can guarantee this: If any of those 153 is executed, it won’t be because of rational factors such as the severity of the crime. Instead, the candidates will be chosen based on such random criteria as: Who is so mentally ill as to have given up his appeals? Whose lawyer made a mistake or missed a deadline that doomed him?

The California judge — who, we should note, is a conservative Republican appointed by George W. Bush — gave voice to what those who work on death penalty cases have seen for years:

Who lives and who dies in this system becomes more arbitrary at every step of the process.

The threat of a possible execution sometime in the distant future does not prevent crime. (But it does cost millions of dollars a year.)

North Carolina has rightly become queasy about executing people, which is the reason we haven’t had an execution since 2006. The California decision is yet another sign that we should pay attention to that gut feeling and end the farce of capital punishment.

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