November 11, 2021

Time to End the Death Penalty, Address Racial Disparities

Russ Feingold President

Russ Feingold
ACS President Russ Feingold

The United States needs to abolish the death penalty. It is unconscionable that a country that takes pride in its commitment to civil rights at home and human rights abroad continues to execute its own people. I was reminded of this yet again this week when the Supreme Court heard a case about what the rights of a death row inmate are during his execution. For me, I just kept thinking, cases like this should not exist. We should not have to ask about what the rights of a person are at the time the state decides to kill them – because we shouldn’t have the death penalty.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to listen to this week’s Broken Law podcast episode, in which Christopher Wright Durocher, our Senior Director of Policy and Program, speaks with Kristina Roth and Elizabeth Zitrin about how the world views the death penalty and what that says about the United States. Krissy and Elizabeth explain how this country’s retention of the death penalty tarnishes our reputation abroad and how it even encourages other countries to retain the death penalty.

As Elizabeth says on the podcast, “More authoritarian places in the world will say and do, ‘the United States does it, why are you targeting us? The vaunted great United States has the death penalty, why are we any worse?’ Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Iran. And that’s a very damaging excuse and rational to give them, that they can continue to execute with impunity because the United States does.” We are giving other countries cover to retain this archaic and inhumane practice.

There is momentum in this country to abolish the death penalty. That is undeniable, but it doesn’t offset the injustice that is unfolding in key states that cling to capital punishment and continue to execute their own people. Just recently, Oklahoma carried out what has been widely reported as a botched execution of John Grant. During the execution, Grant convulsed dozens of times and vomited multiple times after receiving the first of a three-drug cocktail. There is no way to describe this except as cruel and unusual punishment, something that is prohibited by our Constitution.

Making it worse, the Supreme Court lifted a stay on Grant’s execution put in place by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals over concerns that Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol would do exactly what it did – result in unnecessary pain and suffering. The Supreme Court’s mission is to uphold the Constitution, and yet once again a majority of Justices on this packed Court opted instead to favor their own political agenda over the Constitution. There is no way to make capital punishment humane. The answer to any question about how a state should execute a person is to abolish the death penalty.

Our work on ending the death penalty will not conclude the day we achieve abolition. Our country must reckon with the injustice and racism that has defined the death penalty since its inception. ACS is publicly calling for truth, racial healing, and transformation in this country because of how our laws and legal systems have been systematically used to enforce racial hierarchy. And the death penalty is no different. It was born out of racism and has consistently been used to disproportionately kill Black men in this country. Abolishing the death penalty means repealing the laws that enable this practice and reckoning with the impact and devastation that they have caused.

ACS will continue to advocate for abolition. And in the meantime, we will also continue to call upon President Biden to use the authority granted to him by the Constitution to commute federal death row. Short of abolition, the President has an enormous opportunity to demonstrate moral leadership at home and abroad by ensuring that the federal government cannot carry out cruel and unusual punishment in the form of capital punishment. A moratorium, as ACS has consistently said, is not enough as it can be lifted by a future administration. A blanket commutation is the best option, short of abolition, for preventing the federal government from carrying out another execution spree like the Trump administration conducted in its final months.

You can access more information about ACS’s work on death penalty abolition on our website.

Death Penalty