Report on Amnesty Death penalty discussion
On 10 October 2020, the 18th World Day Against the Death Penalty, Amnesty hosted a discussion with three people who are closely connected with the campaign to end the practice. They were Kim Manning Cooper; Dr Bharat Malkani and Chiara Sangiorgio. It was chaired by Paul Bridges. It was a fascinating talk in which they discussed different aspects of how the death penalty works in the USA. Amnesty has maintained a consistent policy of condemning the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. It is fundamentally about human dignity.
Amnesty is also opposed to life sentences without the chance of parole.
Much of the discussion focused on the miscarriages of justice in the USA. The death penalty does not do what its proponents claim it does. It does not deter violent crime. States who do not use the penalty have some of the lowest murder rates in the Union. It is expensive, with 724 people on death row in California alone, which has cost the state $4bn since 1978. Mistakes are common and of course cannot be put right. Since 1973, 170 prisoners on death row have been exonerated, a quite staggering level of error. The One for Ten movement was referred to, which notes that for every ten people executed in the US, one has been exonerated and released, having spent, on average, ten years on death row.
Dr Malkani’s talk explored the effects on innocent people. Following arrest for a crime they did not commit, there is a feeling of a sheer sense of disbelief. Their first concern is for their loved ones. How would they cope without them and if they have children, how will they handle school when everyone will know that their parent has been arrested for murder? He mentioned the ‘ripple effect’ which results in trauma being felt among a wide community of individuals, not just the immediate family.
There follows a sense of hopelessness, realising that the might of the State is trying to kill you. Next comes anger when you know you are innocent. (No reference was made to the fact that that the US does not have the equivalent of PACE, which requires evidence indicating innocence to be disclosed to the defence. This evidence is often not disclosed with the aim of a securing a conviction.)
Dr Malkani went on to discuss the effects on people released after a long period of captivity. Understandably, they want to return to their previous life, but they find this impossible as so much has changed both in society and in their families. Their children have grown up without knowing them. It is also difficult to achieve a personal identity having spent the many years in captivity as just a number. Now free, they are always described as someone who was on death row.
Because they were on death row, they received no training or attempts at rehabilitation since they were destined for execution. The pace of modern technology meant the world was a completely different place. There were no support systems in place. There was also relationship breakdown after such long periods of separation. Sadly, many die quite soon after their release.
Kim Manning-Cooper spoke of the infamous Troy Davis case. An off-duty policeman was murdered and a witness came forward claiming that Troy was the killer. It now appears possible that the witness himself may have been the culprit. There are too many irregularities to list but include witnesses who were threatened with being charged themselves, police statements signed by people who could not read or write, some witnesses were threatened by the police, no forensic or DNA evidence was submitted, and no gun was ever found. An evidentiary hearing was held by the Supreme Court but, despite the multiple failings in the prosecution case and some misgivings, the appeal failed and Davis was executed in September 2011. His sister had campaigned tirelessly in his support. Amnesty International campaigned for justice in the Davis case, a cause the Salisbury group took part in.
Kim said people often say ‘the system is failing black men but in reality, the failure is in the way the system was designed’.
‘the system is failing black men but in reality, the failure is in the way the system was designed’
This theme was developed by Dr Malkani. The issue of race was built into the legal system in the USA he said. It
dates back to the 13th amendment of the US Constitution which abolished slavery ‘except as a punishment for a crime’. When lynching ended in the 1920’s, executions skyrocketed, as evidenced by the Death Penalty Information Center. The bias extended to the prosecution process, with district attorneys unwilling to prosecute a black person murdered by a white but all too willing to prosecute the other way around. Some members of juries in the state of Georgia are quoted as saying ‘black people have no souls’. Many murders of black people remain unsolved. Only 21 white people have been executed for killing a black person but 296 black people for killing a white person.
Finally, he said the effects on wardens and prison guards can also be profound as was shown in the award winning film Clemency.
The question was posed ‘could the justice system ever be error proof?’ This was related to things like the use of DNA. The answer was that no system could be error proof, DNA was not infallible and was not a silver bullet, although sometimes evidence is found years later. The justice system could not be used to solve issues of bad housing, drug addiction and social problems generally. We needed to advocate for prison reform as well as ending the death penalty and life sentences without the prospect of parole.
In addition to Amnesty International’s Death Penalty Urgent Actions, the work of Reprieve was highlighted, and writing to people on death row organised by Lifelines.
This was a most interesting discussion. There is a slow decline in the number of executions and Americans themselves are increasingly wanting the practice ended. The role of Black Lives Matter is likely to have an effect. There are other countries in the world with far worse records – Saudi Arabia, and Iran – but especially China. The numbers executed in China run into thousands but details are a state secret.
For American readers: PACE – the Police and Criminal Evidence Act provides a range of protections to people arrested in the UK one of which is the defense must see all the evidence collected by the police, not just that which indicates possible guilt.