Last month, City welcomed Ken Light, a social documentary photographer whose striking collection, Texas Death Row, gives a haunting insight into the American penal system. Last year 13 men were put to death in Texas, a figure amounting to more than half of the people executed in the entire country.
Ken was the first photographer in the US to walk the row back in 1997. He said that his work was driven by the desire to “put a human face” on the death penalty issue. Since his visit, 60 of the men Ken photographed have been executed.
The New Yorker used photos of one of the inmates Ken photographed, Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed after being convicted of killing his 3 daughters in a house fire.
Like many death penalty cases, questions were asked over the credibility of the evidence, which the Texas Forensic Science later confirmed was based on personal opinions rather than cold, hard facts. Today, his execution is still one of the most controversial executions in American history with many supporters protesting his innocence.
The death penalty around the world in 2017
The death penalty is not exclusive to the US and the numbers from some countries, such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, dwarf those of Americans put to death. Crimes which are punished with execution vary from country to country. Murder, terrorism, offences against the State, drug trafficking and genocide are those most likely to be executed.
But, in the last forty years, the number of countries to abolish the death penalty has risen – from 48 in 1991 to 106 in 2017.
According to Amnesty International:
- 56 countries uphold execution in law and practice
- Seven countries use it in exceptional circumstances, such as during war time. 29 countries have the law but haven’t killed anyone for over 10 years.
- 106 countries have outlawed the death penalty.
An irreversible punishment
A study calculated the number of unjust sentences in the US between 1973 and 2004. The result showed that at least 4.1% were mistakes. Since 1973 over 150 people in death rows have been released due to courts finding evidence to prove their innocence.
Former executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Centre, Richard Dieter, said that there is a chance of an innocent person being executed. “Every time we have an execution, there is a risk of executing an innocent person,” Dieter said. “The risk may be small, but it’s unacceptable”.
Many of the inmates will sit on the row for years, appealing their sentences before the courts realise they were wrongfully convicted. This state of limbo between life and death is traumatising, even for those who have committed the crime. A fate worse than death.
Here are some reasons for the abolishment of the death penalty:
1.It does not reduce crime
There is no evidence that shows the death penalty reduces crime rates more than imprisonment. In the US, the FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2017 showed that 7 of the 9 states with the highest murder rates are death-penalty states, while 5 of the 8 states with the lowest murder rates do not have the death penalty. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976 and its murder rate has declined, reaching its lowest in 2016.
2. It targets the poor and the ethnic minorities
Whether a suspect is condemned largely depends on the effectiveness of the attorney, which very often depends on the budget they have. In terms of racial disparity statistics in the US, Blacks, Latinos and Hispanic make up 30% of the population but they made up 70% of the sentences in 2016.
A 3 year analysis conducted by The American Bar Association concluded that the judicial system has a “significant racial disparity ties in imposing the death penalty”.
3. It violates the right to life and human dignity
In some countries, executions are undertaken in public. In Iraq, public hangings are the de facto punishment and others broadcast executions live which, according to UN human rights experts, increase the cycle of violence it seeks to prevent.
A person must pay for their crimes and the legal system should ensure that this happens. Yet, as human beings, we should all be given the opportunity to be rehabilitated. Once the right to life is taken away, the desire to change is more difficult to resolve and though many see the error of their ways, they have little opportunity to act on their newly found goodness.
Many ex-convicts have used their experience to change the world. Marlon Peterson spent his entire twenties in jail for murder. But since his release, Peterson has created youth empowerment programs and worked to create communities free of the violence he experienced growing up.