The Abolitionist New  
Vol. 3, No. 3
March 2015
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      Is The Death Penalty The Only Justice?


 Dr. Stephanie A. Jirard

  Shippensburg University 


     Editor's Note: On February 14, 2015, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf halted further implementation of the death penalty in the state until a task force examining capital punishment issues its report and recommendations. 

     "If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible," Gov. Wolf stated. "Pennsylvania's system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive and anything but infallible."


     The Governor's action has been challenged in court, and the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. The court refused, however, to expedite the hearing, so  it may be over a year before it's decided whether the governor has the constitutional authority to suspend the death penalty.


     Dr. Jirard's editorial is in response to the Pennsylvania Governor's action. Her analysis applies nationwide.



     After Gov. Tom Wolf announced he was halting executions until the results of a bipartisan study on the fairness, cost and efficacy of capital punishment in the commonwealth are released and addressed, I was dismayed to read comments from the Dauphin County prosecutor calling the governor's decision a "punch in the stomach" to murder victims' families.


     As a former prosecutor and capital defense attorney, I have witnessed the true suffering of murder victims' families first hand, and there is nothing more gut wrenching.


     But it is cruel to tell victims' families that they need the death penalty to achieve justice or closure, because the death penalty isn't even an option in the vast majority of murder cases.


     In 2013, there were 594 murders committed in Pennsylvania and three offenders joined death row that year. If justice for the victims' families is defined as the imposition of a death sentence, then what of the other 591 Pennsylvanians that were killed and their families, all of whom have suffered the horrors of a murder in the family?


     Many of these crimes are never even solved, let alone prosecuted with the goal of getting a death sentence.


     Even in cases where a death sentence is handed down, the promise of an execution frequently goes unfulfilled.


     According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Pennsylvanians have imposed 412 death sentences since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974, and yet 250 of those death verdicts have been reversed on appeal due to serious errors, with only six death sentences reinstated, and yet justice was served.


     Only three executions have been carried out in during this same period.


     If awarding the death penalty were nothing more than a calculus of weighing the value of a murder victim's life against that of the offender, the victim's virtue would tip the scale every time. But justice is much more complicated than simply executing an offender in retribution for a victim's life.


     The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the automatic award of a death sentence upon conviction for capital murder since 1976, reasoning that juries must sentence the offender and not just the crime. Our criminal justice system looks at offenders, many of whom have had wretched lives that may explain - but never excuse - the terrible crimes they commit. Justice demands that criminal sentencing weigh all relevant factors around the severity of the crime and the culpability of the offender. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that juveniles and the intellectually impaired are less capable of making informed decisions and sound judgments, and therefore should be exempted from execution.


     So why is the argument made that the death-penalty moratorium robs the victims' families of justice? Is justice for the victims only defined by executing offenders? Why is the victim's value defined by what happens to the person who killed him or her?


     Surely there have been prosecutors in Pennsylvania who could have decided to seek the death penalty in death-eligible first-degree murder cases and chose not to, and yet justice was served. Surely there are prosecutors in Pennsylvania who initially filed capital murder charges against an offender, and then decided to offer a plea bargain for life in prison without parole, and yet justice was served.


     In contrast to the death penalty, life without parole is a severe and certain punishment that means what it says: offenders will remain in prison until their natural deaths. Victims' families don't have to spend decades waiting for an execution that may never come.


     It is a popular refrain that the death penalty is reserved for the "worst of the worse." However, in my experience, the death penalty is a punishment reserved exclusively for the poor, for the mentally ill and for offenders whose victims were white.


     I submit that achieving justice is about much more than simply getting a death sentence. The late writer David Foster Wallace once said that leaders "help us overcome the limitations of our own individual ... weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own."


     I urge the state prosecutors and the police who serve us all to join and support Gov. Wolf's leadership by making us all do the hard work to define what justice truly is in each and every case without resorting to the tag line that execution is the answer.


Dr. Stephanie A. Jirard teaches criminal justice at Shippensburg University. She is a graduate of Boston College Law School and author of Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and the Constitution. Her research fields of interest are constitutional law, capital punishment, and race and gender in popular culture. You can contact Dr. Jirard at

True Stories From The Valley of Death

(Death Penalty News From Across The Country)

     Tennessee... The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that prison officials do not have to provide the names of executioners, pharmacists, or medical staff involved in executions in the Volunteer State. The ruling by the state's highest court overturns two lower-court opinions.

The majority opinion stated that the information was not relevant to the suit filed by the inmates. The opinion stated that the suit was based on the written protocol, not the manner in which it was applied by the execution team. Moreover, releasing names of the execution team would create a risk of retribution for participants in the execution process. 

The ruling stated: "The trial court failed to give adequate consideration to the state's need to protect the privacy of those involved in the execution of condemned inmates and its need to protect those persons from annoyance, embarrassment and/or oppression." 

The ruling allows two additional cases related to the death penalty in Tennessee to proceed.

     Utah... In a move that many Utahns consider a throwback to the state's wild-west past, the legislature has voted to reinstate the firing squad as a method to execute death row inmates. The bill now goes to the governor for his signature, although he has not indicated his position on the bill.

Utah, like other states that still have the death penalty, is finding it difficult to secure the drugs necessary for lethal injections. Consequently, as a fallback position, other forms of execution are being reinstated. For example, Tennessee has reactivated the electric chair, and Oklahoma is moving towards bringing back the gas chamber.

     Delaware... A bill to repeal capital punishment in the "Blue Hen State" will be introduced when the 2015 state legislature convenes. Senator Karen Peterson is sponsoring the bill in the upper chamber to end the death penalty. The bill excludes the fifteen men now awaiting execution; they would still be eligible for the death penalty, if their conviction are not overturned on appeal.

The bill has already generated opposition. The Speaker of the House has stated that he would not support any bill that did not have a provision to allow the death penalty for anyone convicted of killing a law enforcement officer. The Attorney General does not oppose the death penalty in "appropriate cases,"but believes that death penalty verdicts should be by a unanimous vote of the jury.

Law enforcement officers also are opposed the proposed legislation. The head of the Delaware State Troopers Association stated that no modifications to the bill could secure his group's approval. He stated that Delaware applies the death penalty fairly and without racial bias.

     Montgomery... The Alabama House of Representatives has approved a bill to bring back the electric chair as a method of execution if drugs for lethal injections become unavailable. Ironically, Alabama dropped the electric chair as a method of execution of 2002 because it was believed that federal courts would find it unconstitutional.

The bill passed the House on a vote of 76-26, with most of the dissent coming from minority members of the legislature. Rep. Louise Alexander noted that the white men who killed four children in 1963 when they bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham did not get the death penalty. She stated she could not go to Heaven "if I voted for this bill."

The bill was amended on the floor of the House to withhold the names of the companies that make the drugs for lethal injections from public disclosure.

     Baton Rouge... Louisiana legislators are getting an insightful view on the costs associated with the death penalty as a result of a report filed by the lawyer of five inmates--known as the Angola 5--who killed a prison guard in a failed attempt to escape in 1999. All of the inmates were serving a life sentence when they tried to escape.

The attorney for one of the inmates has calculated that the Louisiana Department of Corrections has spent $14 million dollars on the case thus far, with only one person currently awaiting execution.

The facts uncovered by the defendant's attorney will undoubtedly be a part of the ongoing discussions underway by the Louisiana Legislature on ways to cut costs in the Department of Corrections budget. For more information on this case see The Marshall Project.

Four Religious Publications Condemn Death Penalty  


     In an unprecedented display of solidarity against one of the most violent remnants of frontier mentality in American culture, four national Catholic publications took an editorial position against the death in their March 5 editions.


The editorial boards of the four publications--America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter andOur Sunday Visitor--"urge the readers of our diverse publications and the whole U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith to stand with us and say, 'Capital punishment must end.'"


     The publications were wholeheartedly supported by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the United States. The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, stated: "Turning away from capital punishment does not diminish our support for the families of murder victims...But killing the guilty does not honor the dead nor does it ennoble the living. When we take a guilty person's life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture and we demean our own dignity in the process."


     Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, Chair of the Committee on Pro-life Activities, said, "We pray that the Court's review of these protocols will lead to the recognition that institutionalized practices of violence against any person erode reverence for the sanctity of every human life. Capital punishment must end."


     Sister Camille D'Arienzo, whose group has sponsored Families and Friends of Murder Victims for the past eighteen years, states that death penalty advocates maintain that executing the killer of a family member brings closure to the family. Her experience, however, present another story. When asked what they want for their child's killer, they do not ask for the death penalty. "Their reason: 'I wouldn't want another mother to suffer what I have suffered.' Their hearts, though broken, are undivided in their humanity."


     The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on two separate death penalty cases during the current term, with opinions probably issued in June. Governors in two states have suspended executions pending the court's decisions. 


      The editors of the Catholic publications expressed the hopes of all abolitionists by stating: "We join our bishops in hoping the court will reach the conclusion that it is time for our nation to embody its commitment to the right to life by abolishing the death penalty once and for all."