Sunday, Oct. 10, is World Day Against the Death Penalty, and on this day, we urge the United States to outlaw this horrible punishment.
As the son and granddaughter of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed by the U.S. government after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage at the height of the McCarthy period in 1953, we have a personal reason to abhor the death penalty.
As attorneys, we view the death penalty as a fundamental human rights abuse. And as citizens, we are ashamed that the death penalty is still being carried out in our country.
In 1846, the state of Michigan became one of the earliest governments in the world to abolish the death penalty. More than issues of morality and deterrence, the debate focused on a fundamental question: Does a government have the right to put people to death?
There are many compelling reasons to answer no.
First of all, the death penalty diminishes the humanity of everyone it touches. As Sojourner Truth told the Michigan legislature during one debate on whether to reinstate capital punishment, “We are the makers of murderers if we do it.”
Second, since our system of justice can never be mistake-free, it is inevitable that an error will be made in a capital case and an innocent person will be executed. In fact, DNA evidence has demonstrated the innocence of at least 17 death-row inmates since 1993, according to the Innocence Project.
Third, the question of cost is also compelling. At a time when states face massive budget shortfalls, a study examining the cost of the death penalty in Kansas found that death penalty cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases. A report by the Urban Institute found that taxpayers paid at least $37.2 million for each of five executions carried out in Maryland.
Fourth, the death penalty disproportionately falls on poor people and people of color. Blacks and Latinos make up more than 55 percent of the current death row population, despite comprising only about 25 percent of the U.S. population. The vast majority of people on death row are poor.
Fifth, the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. States that use it don’t have lower murder rates than states that do not. Plus, life imprisonment would protect the public just as well as execution does.
Finally, there is a more fundamental reason. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States took a leadership role in drafting an “international bill of rights” that recognized all people have certain inherent rights. This core human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, put it simply: Life is a human right. This makes the death penalty our deepest human rights abuse. As long as governments have the right to extinguish our lives, they maintain the power to deny us access to every other right.
A human rights perspective on capital punishment has the additional advantage of being permanent. If capital punishment could somehow be fixed — the cost cut, the racial and class biases removed, all possibilities for error eliminated — the government still can’t execute because it violates human rights.
On this eighth World Day Against the Death Penalty, let us reaffirm our commitment to human rights and reassert our common humanity by demanding that our government stop killing our fellow human beings.
Robert Meeropol is the director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, www.rfc.org, and Rachel Meeropol is an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, www.ccrjustice.org. They can be reached via the Progressive Media Project (www.progressivemediaproject.org): 409 East Main Street, Madison, WI 53703. Phone: 608-257-4626 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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