Opinion: The death penalty is racist and unnecessary


Elly Green, Reporter

For years, Americans have protested the unjust and racially motivated use of the death penalty or capital punishment. On Mar. 23, 2020, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty. Films such as “Just Mercy” highlight how jurors, judges and overall communities take into account race and class when deciding on capital punishment. 

However, some Americans believe that with time, the death penalty is no longer racially motivated and instead is motivated by the seriousness of the punishment. This is ridiculously untrue, as recent numbers and cases bring to our attention the unjust death penalty cases that have been flying under the radar. 

The death penalty was created sometime in the 18th century B.C. when we can see the death penalty being punishment for 25 different crimes in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), we also notice death as punishment in 14th century B.C. Hittite Code and in seventh century B.C. Draconian Code of Athens in which death was the only punishment for any and all crimes. Crucifixions, drownings, beatings to death, burning alive and impalements were all used to kill the defendants of the crimes. Overall, Britain influenced Americans to use capital punishment. When Europeans came to settle in the New World, they brought with them the idea of capital punishment, according to DPIC.

A study done by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that people of color make up 43% of total executions since 1976 and 55% of those currently on death row. The ACLU also describes that as of October of 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the victim was black, but 178 black defendants have been executed for homicides including white victims. 

Specific black individuals who are on death row have gained popularity amongst teenagers and young adults since George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, according to the New York Times. For example, Pervis Payne, a black man with an intellectual disability, who has spent the last 32 years on death row has gained popularity even prompting a petition calling for Payne to not be executed. This petition has already received 134,479 signatures. 

According to The Innocence Project, in June of 1987, Payne was waiting for his girlfriend to come home to her apartment in Millington, Tennessee, when he discovered that a neighbor, Charisse Christopher and her children had been attacked and murdered. Struggling with an intellectual disability, Payne was horrified by the gory scene, but still tried to help. However, when he noticed the white police officers coming, he knew that he would be blamed for the crime due to his skin color. Later that day, Payne was arrested for the murders and in February was convicted and sentenced to death. 

While some may think that lack of a proper alibi might be enough to convict somebody, several inconsistencies in evidence and the prosecution led to an unfair trial for Payne. Payne has never admitted to the crime and in fact adamantly expresses his innocence in the case. A DNA test from the murder weapon could prove his innocence. At the time of the murder DNA testing was not an option, but now that it is it could be a huge breakthrough in the case. The Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich is opposing testing DNA for this certain case. This is not the first time Weirich’s office has denied DNA testing in death row cases and will most likely not be the last. Payne’s trial took place in Shelby County, which is among the 25 counties that had the highest cases of lynchings between the years of 1877 and 1950. During the trial, the prosecution repeatedly mentioned the victim’s white skin while painting a picture of Payne as a drug-using, hypersexual, aggressive black man. 

According to Atkins vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 that people with intellectual disabilities cannot be executed under the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments, however, states are allowed to define what merits an intellectual disability for their own count. Payne is set to be executed before Apr. 9, 2021, even with lack of evidence and a diagnosed intellectual disability. 

Payne is just one of the many black men on death row who received a racially motivated “guilty” by the jury and will not be the last. According to The Innocence Project, 4% of death row individuals are innocent, meaning that some innocent people are executed every year for a crime they did not commit. 

The death penalty has proven to be racially motivated at times, unconstitutional and unnecessary, where black men and women are targeted by their white peers and bear the consequences of crimes they did not commit.

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