Barr’s talking points on the death penalty are misleading
The U.S. Department of Justice announced it will resume executions for the first time in 16 years, with five of the 61 defendants currently on the federal death row given execution dates.
In a statement made Thursday morning, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said, “Under Administration of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five criminals.”
The worst. It’s a tired talking point – frequently amplified to “worst of the worst” – employed by death penalty proponents who know they can’t argue the merits of the system and instead must rely on fear-mongering and vague stereotypes to rally what little public support is still available to them on this issue.
The reality is that the “worst of the worst” is a subjective classification to begin with – what line one draws in the sand for throwing away the sanctity of human life will vary from the lines of others. But even if we could come to a consensus on what crimes constitute this indistinct classification, a quick look at the facts shows clearly that the severity of the crime rarely determines who gets a death sentence.
In actuality, the leading determinates for who receives the death penalty and who does not have little to do with the nature of the crime at all. In both state and federal systems, it is the location where the crime is committed that is the leading factor in a capital sentence. Just 2 percent of counties bring the majority of death penalty cases. All executions since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s have come from a mere 16 percent of the nation’s counties. At the federal level, three states – Texas, Missouri, and Virginia – are responsible for the majority of the cases, and all of the cases have come from 31 of the nation’s 94 federal judicial districts.
Most Americans presume that to end up on the federal government’s death row a person must have committed an act of treason, terrorism or espionage. However, only one person on the federal death row is there for an act of terrorism, and none are there for treason or espionage.
Upon examination, many of the cases at the federal level look like those one would find at the state level. Some cases were prosecuted at the state level and moved on to the federal system when a jury chose to not impose a death sentence (new death sentences are down 60 percent since 2000).
Others crossed some other arbitrary marker, like in the case of Marvin Gabrion. Gabrion’s crime was committed in a federal park. Had it occurred a mere hundred feet away or so, it would not have been a federal case.
So Barr is misleading the public by insinuating that these crimes are being scheduled for executions because they are the worst of the worst. These five prisoners are not protected by stays of execution, unlike several other prisoners whose sentences have completed judicial review. Those stays are in connection with a lawsuit seeking to require the government to go through formal rule-making before finalizing an execution protocol. Setting dates on these five men is an effort to make an end run around the litigation, and to avoid the transparency and public scrutiny of rule-making procedures.
The growing bipartisan backlash against the death penalty is for good cause. Not only is the system highly arbitrary, as explained above, it is also not a deterrent and it needlessly risks innocent lives. One person has been exonerated from death row for every ten executions, and in these situations it isn’t the government catching itself. It’s typically the work of outside groups, like the Innocence Project, that are working pro bono to prove innocence. At the federal level, where cases receive even fewer reviews, the likelihood of killing an innocent person is even higher.
And perhaps most egregious, the death penalty wastes millions upon millions of dollars every year. On average, a single death penalty case costs $1 million more than a life without parole case. And 70 percent of those costs come from the trial alone, so speeding up the process doesn’t help. That’s money that should be spent on solving the 49 percent of uncleared homicides in this country.
Conservatives have led the charge against the death penalty in the states in recent years. In 2019 alone, 11 states saw Republican-sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty. The truth is becoming increasingly apparent. The death penalty is a failed big government program like so many others, and it doesn’t align with our values of fiscal responsibility or protecting the sanctity of human life. It’s time for Attorney General Barr and the administration to be honest and follow the lead of this consistent conservative movement.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.