Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more, death thou shalt die!

John Donne c.1610

When Donne penned those lines he was challenging death and asserting that…ultimately…it brought peace, just as do rest and sleep. But I borrow and reinterpret them to bolster my ongoing crusade against the death penalty. For in those cases death is not the end of a criminal act that destroys human life and devalues cultural standards of accepted behavior. Instead capital punishment—death—diminishes our very souls and perpetuates what far too often is injustice, misjustice, maljustice, faux justice, and no justice at all.


Yet to hear prosecuting attorneys, law enforcement people, and the families and friends of victims speak when a death sentence is imposed, they generally express gladness at or satisfaction with the impending taking of another human life, one snuffed out in pure revenge, a revenge that in the case of multiple victims doesn’t even extract one life in exchange for the innocent life lost in equal proportions.

The hell of it is, the application of the death penalty is at once both utterly random and appallingly, egregiously discriminatory.

Fact: The number of murders in this country committed by blacks and by whites is roughly equal.

Fact: The number of murderers on death row who are white are roughly equal to the number who are black.

Fact: 75% of the victims in the cases that brought the death sentence were white and only 25% black.

It appears that white lives are valued more than black ones.

The proportion of death row occupants as well as the numbers of murder committed by members of other minorities is small enough to be irrelevant to the particular issue at hand. And that issue is the finding that frequently in the cases where the ultimate punishment is sought against blacks, the jury gets rigged to limit the number of or exclude altogether, black jurors.

Barry Scheck, head of The Innocence Project, explains all this in regards to a case before the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Basically the case involves three blacks and one Lumbee Indian whose death sentences were overturned when a lower court judge found convincing evidence that discrimination in jury selection was a significant factor in their sentencing. They got relief under a North Carolina law called the Racial Relief Act. This law was repealed after that court ruling.

The four prisoners in the case have uncovered a mountain of evidence of discrimination in their cases and county, including a prosecutor’s handwritten notes in one of their cases. In it, he described prospective jurors differently by race. The white “country boy” who “drank” was “ok,” in contrast to the “black wino” who was excluded. Another African-American juror was “ok” because she was from “a respectable black family.”

The evidence also contained an unprecedented study of race and jury selection in North Carolina. Researchers found across the state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, rampant racial discrimination against African-American jurors by the prosecution was the norm. After their success, the law that allowed their appeals on the basis of discrimination jury selection, the Racial Justice Act, was repealed. Not satisfied, the State of North Carolina is attempting to make the important victories in these four cases disappear.

Scheck provides more background on how jury discrimination taints sentences all over the country. And the same evidence showing jury discrimination also illustrates discrimination in how defendants are charged. Part of the problem with jury discrimination is that there is a proven bias in cross-racial witness identification that is less subject to challenge by jurors made up mostly of whites.

It should go without saying but, since some are willfully ignorant of this it will be said,an execution of a convicted murderer eliminates all possibility of exoneration, while such exonerations are growing more common. Please remember, too, our U.S. Supreme Court has ruled innocence is not sufficient reason for an appeal to be granted if all the legal niceties have been satisfied.

The application of the death penalty and advocacy for its continued use is another example of functional racism even if unintentional or cleverly hidden under the subterfuge of acceptable formality in our justice system.

That is not justice—it is travesty..

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