Only 15 minutes before Earl Wesley Berry was to be executed by lethal injection in Mississippi’s Parchman state prison, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution. The high court has recently blocked three executions.
Many speculate that this delay order could mean the Supreme Court is informally calling for a moratorium on the use of lethal injection. It is not known how each justice voted, but at least five had to agree to the delay. Justices Alito and Scalia said they would have allowed Berry’s execution to go forward.
On Sept. 25, the court announced it would rule on the constitutionality of the use of lethal injection and whether it constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” as stated in the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. This review will come in the case of Baze v. Rees, which will probably be argued in January or February 2008. Lethal injection is regularly used in the 36 states where the death penalty is legal. Therefore a moratorium on the use of lethal injection also means a temporary moratorium on the death penalty.
The court had declared executing minors illegal and said it is unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded offenders.
In the past 30 years, 124 death row inmates were found to be innocent and were released. These exonerations have led to each state taking a closer look at the death penalty. In 2006, there were 114 death sentences issued and 53 executions in the United States, the lowest in 30 years. More than 83 percent of the executions occurred in the South, with Texas in the lead.
In the U.S. when crime rates are high, support for the death penalty increases due to the belief that it will be a deterrent. But statistics show this to be false.
The American Bar Association released a report in early October critical of the many flaws in the death penalty systems in all the states. There are no national standards, and sentencing is often arbitrary and capricious. The ABA study showed that African Americans, people of color and poor defendants in general have a far greater chance of being sentenced to death than a white defendant for the same offence.
The study gave evidence that in Philadelphia, Pa., a Black defendant is four times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant, and that skin color and facial features play a critical role in capital sentencing.
Other flaws the study discovered were inadequate counsel for defendants, misconduct of prosecutors, failure to preserve physical and/or biological evidence, unreasonable rules and regulations that make it difficult for a convicted person to file petitions or to file for DNA testing, crime labs not using the most up-to-date methods and unclear instructions to a capital case jury. The ABA is calling for a moratorium on the death penalty and its eventual abolition.
Harold C. Wilson, the 122nd U.S. death row prisoner to be exonerated after 16 years on death row, told his story at an Oct. 18 Philadelphia-area Black Radical Congress forum. Presently there are 228 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania. “My personal experience clearly shows that the death penalty is unfair and that the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, Pa., and the United States is greatly flawed,” Wilson said. “It ruined my life and nearly killed me.”