It’s Time for Delaware to Repeal the Death Penalty

Furman v. Georgia

Forty years ago this week in Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty across the country. They said it violated the U.S. Constitution because it was applied inconsistently and was therefore cruel and unusual punishment.

When the death penalty was reinstated four years later in Gregg v. Georgia, new procedures were expected to make the nation’s most severe punishment less arbitrary and more fair. The Court also commended the new statutes as “a responsible effort to define those crimes and those criminals for which capital punishment is most probably an effective deterrent.”

Decades later, random factors such as the race of the victim, the place the crime was committed, and the quality of defense counsel continue to exert significant influence on determining whether a defendant will receive the death penalty.

Racial Bias

Last year, a study of the Louisiana death penalty found that the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black. A recent Cornell University Study of Delaware’s death penalty found that over 70% of death penalties are handed down in white victim cases, although the majority of people murdered here are black.

The death penalty is still plagued with randomness as it was forty years ago, and it is by no means reserved for the “worst of the worst” offenders.

Not A Deterrent to Murder

Despite evidence that the death penalty continues to be applied in an arbitrary manner, some say that it is needed to deter murders. But, a recent report released by the National Academy of Sciences found no evidence of deterrence. A committee of nationally recognized experts examined more than three decades of research claiming a deterrent effect from the death penalty on murder rates. They found that the studies were all fundamentally flawed. They recommended that “these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide.”

Even if the reforms instituted after Furman had been effective in making the imposition of death sentences less arbitrary, voters in Delaware should still be concerned by the ongoing risk of executing an innocent person. Last month, Columbia University law professor James Liebman published results of a comprehensive investigation into the case of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in Texas in 1989.  In “Los Tocayos Carlos: The Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution,” Prof. Liebman concluded DeLuna was almost certainly innocent and had been wrongly convicted “on the thinnest of evidence: a single, nighttime, cross-ethnic eyewitness identification and no corroborating forensics.”  Carlos Hernandez, an alternative suspect, looked so similar to DeLuna that friends and family had mistaken photos of the two men for each other. Nationwide, there have been 140 inmates released from death rows because of evidence of their innocence.

Across the country, states are moving away from the death penalty. New death sentence and execution rates have declined dramatically since the 1990s. Five states in the last five years, including Connecticut in 2012, have replaced capital punishment with life without the possibility of parole. It is time for Delaware to be the next state to consider ending this unfair, expensive and risky practice.


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