The Death Penalty is the Tip of America's Human Rights Iceberg


By: David A Love, Executive Director, Witness to Innocence
Huffington Post
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

There's a buzz about the death penalty in America these days. And nearly all of the conversation focuses not on how to maintain the practice, but rather on abolition.

Connecticut just decided to repeal the death penalty, following the lead of Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey in recent years. Meanwhile, California voters will vote on a ballot measure that would eliminate one-quarter of the nation's death row.

Faced with the high cost, lack of deterrent effect and the inevitability of executing innocent people, some states are taking another look. Moreover, given the appalling specter of prosecutors striking black jurors and other forms of racial misconduct, North Carolina and Kentucky have enacted racial justice legislation to overturn racially biased death sentences.

With the European Union enacting an export ban on lethal injection chemicals to the U.S., states are scrambling to find out how to kill people. With diminished supplies, states are faced with the option of suspending executions altogether, or like a violence addict, purchasing the poisons on the black market. In other cases such as Ohio, they have abandoned the commonly-used, three-drug protocol in favor of a single drug such as pentobarbita l-- a more commonly found substance used to euthanize animals.

And so, as people are still put down like dogs in the land of the free -- despite the momentum for abolition -- capital punishment represents America's human rights blind spot. But really, this is about more than executions. Rather, it speaks to a nation that often pays lip service to upholding human rights, but debases and denigrates human life through its actions. The result is a callous culture of violence, neglect and disregard.

The U.S. ranked fifth in the world in capital punishment last year, in league with China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. A world leader in executions, America is the world's foremost leader in prisons. The U.S. claims one-twentieth of the global population, but one-quarter of the world's prisoners. A majority of these prisoners are poor and of color, poorly educated, poorly represented in the courtroom and failed by the system. The warehousing of people is big business, an unseemly union of criminal justice policy and profit motive.

Is it an accident that the world's prison leader also ranks near the bottom in income inequality, boasts the largest income inequality in the developed world? Hardly not. Inequality in the land of opportunity is far more than in Europe, Canada, Australia and South Korea, but also more than nearly all of Asia, West Africa and North Africa. The top 1 percent of Americans enjoy far more than elsewhere in the West in terms of executive pay and policies favoring the rich. This, as America's 99 percent receive far less government support for health insurance, daycare, pensions and education.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. preaches democracy to the rest of the world, it enacts voter ID laws that could potentially disenfranchise millions of citizens. Harder to vote, yet easier to purchase a gun. Leading the industrialized nations in handgun proliferation and firearms deaths, America is truly what Martin Luther King called "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Lax gun laws, "shoot to kill" legislation and laws allowing concealed weapons in schools, churches, sports arenas and bars reflect the power of corporate arms manufacturers in U.S. politics. Made in America, the violence is exported to Mexico in the form of illegal weapons fueling the drug war carnage.

And this culture of violence extends to the death penalty, in a country conditioned by years of dehumanization, normalized through slavery and Jim Crow lynching. The death penalty is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human rights violations in the U.S. It might be the most disturbing example of the human rights challenges facing the nation, and the challenges are many.

David A. Love is the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty.