Virginia has executed more people than any other U.S. state. A few weeks ago, it became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty. There is a reason why over 70 percent of the world’s countries no longer use it. However, it is still practiced in 27 U.S. states with lethal injection being the most common execution method.
The first time I sat down to research how the death penalty system worked was after watching “Just Mercy” (2019). The film revolves around Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man sentenced to death for the murder of a teenage white girl. It tells the story of how his defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) worked to appeal his wrongful conviction. McMillian’s conviction was largely based on a testimony by criminal Ralph Myers, who retracted after confessing that he had been coerced by the prosecution to testify against McMillian. “Just Mercy” made me realize that we do not point out the breaks and corruptions within the criminal justice system enough. We do not talk about the death penalty enough. We do not talk about the physical and psychological effects that come along with the inhumane conditions prisoners face on death row enough. Most prisoners usually spend more than a decade in the death row prior to execution.
We saw the Trump administration execute 13 people, with 10 people in 2020 alone – more than three times as many people as in the last six decades. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, it was the first time the federal government had executed more people than all U.S. states combined. We saw many posts on social media about Brandon Bernard, Dustin Higgs and Lisa Montgomery, all executed last year. But most of these cases did not garner enough media attention until it was too late.
Why should we care? The Innocence Project estimates that there are around 20,000 innocent people behind bars today. Despite it being unconstitutional to execute an individual with a disability, nearly 38 percent of state and federal prisoners reported having at least one. Last week, Pervis Payne’s temporary execution reprieve expired, meaning that the Tennessee Supreme Court can now set a date in the future for his execution. Payne, 54, has maintained his innocence for 33 years after being accused of a double homicide. He lives with an intellectual disability, which did not allow him to be a strong witness on his own behalf. After all these years, he is still fighting to prove his innocence.
The death penalty is inhumane, ineffective, classist, racist and prone to error. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, half of the people sent to death row in 2019 were people of color. In Payne’s case, the prosecution portrayed him as a hypersexual violent drug user and emphasized the fact that the victim had been a white woman. The racial disparities in death sentences are impossible to ignore and are more evident when the victim is white. In addition, death row prisoners in countries that still practice the death penalty today, such as the U.S., Malaysia and Nigeria, have one thing in common: they are poor. The individuals in these countries lack the resources to obtain skilled lawyers to present an effective defense against serious crimes. However, some people choose to ignore the morality of the issue and defend the death penalty by saying that it is the cheaper option. In reality, the death penalty is far more expensive than keeping inmates alive. Death penalty prosecutions cost North Carolina at least $11 million a year, even though the state has not executed anyone in 15 years. Why is that? Factors such as legal costs, pre-trial costs, jury selection, trial, solitary confinement and appeals are why the death penalty is so expensive.
I strongly encourage you to engage in these uncomfortable conversations surrounding the death penalty. Let’s raise awareness about Pervis Payne’s case and take action. Like Bryan Stevenson once said, “The question about the death penalty in America is not whether people deserve to die, the question is: do we deserve to kill?”