Alabama is arguably among the most conservative states in the country, if not the most conservative. Alabama also has more people on death row awaiting execution as a percentage of its population than other state in the country and the second ranking state in that category isn’t even close. According to a recent Birmingham News article with the rather misleading headline “Alabama Liberal in Death Sentences”, Alabama, which has 198 inmates awaiting execution, has 40.8 inmates on death row per million of state population while Nevada, which ranks second, has 27.1 per million population.
Now Nevada’s rankings are somewhat understandable since that state ranks second in the country in violent crime, but Alabama is not in the top 10 in that category. Texas, another conservative state, which is called the “Death Penalty Capital of the US”, executes more inmates than Alabama and California has more death row inmates, but Texas has over five times the population of Alabama and California has eight times as many people. In addition, California has a large number of inmates on death row because, though it has the death penalty, actual executions are relatively rare in that state. California has executed only 13 inmates since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978 and none since 2006 due to legal challenges
All of the reasons normally provided for Alabama’s high ranking basically stem from its status as the “reddest of the red states”, which of course affected how the state legislature set up the death penalty laws. In many states, and the US federal judicial system, a jury must be unanimous to impose the death penalty; in Alabama a jury needs a only a 10-2 vote. Alabama is also one the only states which allows judges to override jury recommendations and Alabama is the only state in which judges routinely disregard jury decisions and impose the death penalty. Delaware and Florida also allow judges to override jury decisions, but in those two states judges normally have only used this power to reverse death penalty sentences and impose the more lenient sentences. Not so in Alabama where judges have overridden jury recommendations of life without parole and imposed the death sentence in one fourth of the cases. There have even been ten cases where judges have imposed the death sentence even though the juries unanimously recommended more lenient sentences.
Certainly one of the reasons for Alabama’s large death row population is the fact that in this state judges and prosecutors must stand for election rather than being appointed. This exposes them to the scrutiny of a very conservative electorate. It is very common for those running for judicial office to boast about their “tough on crime” positions during election campaigns. The last thing that those planning to run for reelection want is to leave room for their future opponents to accuse them of being “soft on crime”. Therefore, prosecutors are often more aggressive in seeking the death penalty and judges are more likely to impose it. In addition, the state often doesn’t provide adequate defense resources for the accused who can’t afford a lawyer. Consequently a high number death penalty cases in Alabama have been overturned by higher courts for over abusive prosecutions, trial errors, and, inadequate defense situations. Between 1973 to 2013 there were 56 executions in Alabama, but during that same time period 115 death penalty convictions were overturned.
And that brings up a very important point. With so many errors made and abuses committed in death penalty cases, what trust should we have in the system? If a person is sentenced to jail for twenty years or even life without parole and seven years later it discovered that he/she isn’t guilty, there is no way to give that person those seven years back, but at least they can live free for the rest of their lives. However, there is no hope for an innocent who has been executed. Recently there have been numerous of death row inmates who have freed because someone worked extremely hard and finally discovered evidence which proved that they were not guilty. What if that evidence had never been found, or no one ever looked for it?
I also find it interesting that the state that has the most inmates as a percentage of it population awaiting death by execution also considers itself to be one of the most religious states. There is no doubt that Alabama is deep in the bible belt and is second only to Mississippi among the states in the percentage of its population which attends church services at least weekly. Most Alabamians consider themselves Christians, but would have trouble squaring their views on the death penalty which the most likely answer to the question, “Would Jesus be in favor of executions?” Instead Alabama Christians would likely quote the Old Testament phrase “An eye for an eye” to rationalize their pro capital punishment positions. Never mind that even Israel employs the death only in very unusual circumstance. Although the Biblical law explicitly mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses, Israel has only executed two people in its entire history and one of them was Adolf Eichmann was hanged for his participation in Nazi war crimes which resulted in the death of millions of Jews. The only other was an Israeli military officer who was later found to be innocent and exonerated after his death by firing squad.
Those who favor the death penalty often like to say that executions serve as a deterrent to others. However, the statistics strongly indicate that capital punishment does not deter crime. While they would never admit it, I believe that those governments which still employ the death penalty use it as a form of vengeance. In that respect it is surprising that 32 of our 50 states still have capital punishment on their books.
World wide the United States is one of a small minority of countries which still employ capital punishment. Only 18% of the countries in the world still impose the death penalty on a regular basis. Another 3% have abolished the death penalty for all crimes except under exceptional/special circumstances. 79% of the countries in the world have either abolished capital punishment for all crimes or have not employed it in the last 10 years.
The 36 countries which have not abolished capital punishment are not a group which the United States should be proud to be a member. The more recognizable countries other than the US tend to fall into three groups. China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba are communist countries which use executions to control their populations. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia inherited harsh punishments from Muslim religious law. The rest, India, Uganda, Thailand, the Congo, Ethiopia, etc. are third world countries. Japan and the US are the only modern democracies which still employ capital punishment. However, Japan executed only a total of 13 inmates in the last four years for which I could find statistics, 2010-2013. At the end of 2013 this county which has a population of 128 million had 126 inmates on death row or less than 1 per million of population, 40 times less than the state of Alabama.
The world is slowly moving out of the dark ages when death was the punishment for even relatively minor offences. Most countries have already abandoned capital punishments entirely and most of the rest are moving to reserve the death penalty for only the most heinous of crimes. For instance, in the US the Supreme Court has reserved the civilian death penalty for only the crimes of murder and treason and has recently banned the capital punishments for those who were insane or under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime. Six states have abolished capital punishments in the last eight years. Others, while maintaining the possibility of using capital punishment haven’t executed any prisoners in a number of years.
Unless sometime the future the world falls into absolute chaos, I will predict that the death penalty will be eliminated throughout the world. We are certainly moving in that direction. I may be wrong, but I feel it is better to be optimist than not.