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What good does it do?

| Monday, December 6, 2021

A week before Thanksgiving, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted the sentence of Julius Jones, a death row inmate set to be executed for a 1999 murder, in dramatic fashion. Advocates and attorneys for Jones spent weeks biting their nails after the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended his sentence be commuted at the beginning of November. Gov. Stitt granted Jones clemency via executive order a mere three hours before he was set to be executed, after his last meal and his final words to his family. 

Still, the commutation was a rare victory for anti-death penalty advocates, especially following the spree of federal executions at the end of the Trump administration. In 2020, the federal government executed 13 inmates — the most for any single year since the 19th century. In fact, in the last six months of 2020, the federal government executed more people than they had in the previous six decades

The last-minute clemency in Oklahoma, with the memory of last year’s frenzy of federal executions fresh in the minds of Americans, has, once again, raised the question of capital punishment in public discourse. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, arguing that it is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. Yet, the option persists as a punishment for capital crimes, federally and in 28 states, including Oklahoma. 

The federal executions in the latter half of 2020 weighed heavily on my heart, and reading stories detailing many of these inmates’ final moments is a bleak and dreadful affair. Most tell of heartbreaking childhoods of neglect and abuse, chances for redemption cut short and, most painfully, a distinct lack of closure for the families of their victims. 

Jones’ commutation is undeniably a victory, but it still rings hollow. The existence of the death penalty, at any level of government, is a stain on this country and makes a mockery of American ideals of justice and equality. If you Google it, you can find thousands of articles outlining the pros and cons of the death penalty, but analyzing it under a cost-benefit analysis is not exactly what I’m interested in today. The real question that has been plaguing me, which is central to the moral issue at the core of the death penalty discussion, is this: What good does it do?

There are myriad practical arguments against the death penalty. It’s been empirically proven that lethal injection is more costly for the state than a lifetime of incarceration. There is also the empirically proven and abhorrent racial bias behind those sentenced to death: a fundamentally racist criminal justice system means that people of color, most often Black people, are significantly more likely to receive the death penalty than white people. Further, there is very little evidence of a correlation between the death penalty and lower crime rates, eliminating any argument for its deterrence effect. 

Despite this, it is impossible to ignore that everyone who receives the death penalty has already been convicted of a heinous crime, and there are people still suffering the consequences of their choices. I am grateful that I have never known anyone who has been the victim of a capital crime, and I cannot even begin to imagine the pain of those who have. If the death penalty was able to bring them some sort of peace, or closure, perhaps it is serving its purpose as a tool of justice, and is worth ignoring its practical deficiencies.

Unfortunately, the death penalty does no such thing. One study found that only 2.5% of those affected by the crimes of death row inmates said the process brought them any closure, while over 20% said the execution did not help them heal at all. For some, executions and the publicity surrounding them complicate the grieving process and polarize families, obstructing their ability to heal. Overall, the study found that families find better closure when their family members’ murderers were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty. 

Julius Jones and his attorneys claim true innocence to this day, citing issues with his trial including ineffective defense attorneys, a racially biased jury and alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Of the 13 people executed by the federal government in 2020, at least three presented signs of severe intellectual disability or mental illness. Many spent their time in prison and on death row repenting for their crimes, and used their last words to apologize to their victims and their families. Lethal injection, the mode of execution utilized for all of these inmates, is known to take at least 20 minutes to kill, creating excruciating pain and suffering and a feeling similar to drowning. None of these things excuse their actions, but they do raise the question: Is this what justice looks like? 

Federal executions take place in Terre Haute, Indiana, a mere three hours south from Notre Dame’s campus. Last year, Pope Francis declared the death penalty to be “inadmissable,” and argued that all Catholics should be fighting for its abolition. This is, frankly, an issue that is morally unacceptable for any Notre Dame student to ignore. The death penalty is unjust, racist and cruel, and it fails to provide any sense of peace or closure to victims or their families. 

President Biden issued a halt on federal executions, but his stance on the future of the practice remains unclear. Further, while federal executions skyrocketed, the overall number of executions in the United States declined in 2020, and the number of death penalties imposed reached its lowest point since 1991.

However, until the death penalty is fully abolished, federally and in every state, people across this country will continue to suffer the cruel and unusual consequences of a society fixated on punishment without regard for human life. Even worse, those punishments will serve only to satisfy our most primal desire for revenge, without taking into consideration the needs of those most hurt by these people’s crimes. Continuing the practice of capital punishment is not only impractical and unwise — it is morally indefensible.

Ellie Konfrst is a senior studying political science with a minor in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited people will once again be forced to listen to her extremely good takes. You can find her off campus trying to decide whether or not she’ll go to law school or bragging that Taylor Swift follows her on Tumblr. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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