RUFFOLO: President Biden should abolish death penalty

President+Joe+Biden+is+the+first+United+States+president+to+openly+oppose+the+death+penalty.+Photo+via+Flickr

President Joe Biden is the first United States president to openly oppose the death penalty. Photo via Flickr

The Biden administration must work to abolish the federal death penalty and take action to end the sentences for prisoners on death row.

Currently, capital punishment is allowed in 28 states by the federal government and the U.S. military. Former President Donald Trump oversaw the executions of 13 death row prisoners since July 2020. Traditionally, executions are withheld during transitions of power. Among some of the people executed were Alfred Bourgeois, Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson and Dustin John Higgs.

The executions were carried out by the method of lethal injection, the practice of injecting drugs in someone for the purpose of causing death. The practice of lethal injection was first used in 1977, as it was considered more humane than other methods such as electrocution or gas chamber. However, lethal injection has resulted in painful executions, as the drugs used are not always well-tested or well-regulated. Most of the time three drugs are inserted into the person’s body, one to induce unconsciousness, one meant to paralyze all muscles and one to induce irreversible cardiac arrest.

Some argue that capital punishment is necessary in order to uphold justice. They often point to ancient forms of fairness like “an eye for an eye,” and aim to dehumanize those on death row so their deaths are not seen as tragic, but as a societal good. 

There is emotional validity to pro-capital punishment arguments. There is no arguing that the crimes that those on death row have committed are incredibly twisted and wicked. When we hear of people who kill or horrifically torture innocent people, it is natural to be disheartened. Lisa Montgomery, who was executed Jan. 13 in Terre Haute, Indiana at the United States Penitentiary, where most federal executions are carried out, was sentenced due to strangling a pregnant woman, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, and cutting her unborn baby from her womb. Alfred Bourgeois was convicted of physically, emotionally and sexually torturing his two-year-old daughter.

However, many times those on death row suffer from either an intellectual disability or severe brain damage. Lisa Montgomery had childhood trauma so severe it left her with multiple mental disorders and comprised neurological functioning. It was also strongly suspected that Alfred Bourgeois and Corey Johnson had intellectual disabilities, evident through their IQ scores and professional examination. Dustin Higgs, who also reportedly suffered from an intellectual disability, did not kill any of the three victims he was accused of kidnapping and murdering. His innocence was maintained through the witness and the confessed and convicted shooter.  Yet, he was executed Jan. 16.

It is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty upon those with mental disabilities. Yet, many times, poor legal representation and failure to meet requirements to show evidence of a disability leave the intellectually disabled helpless to fight against execution.

No justice is served when a victim is executed on death row. It does not undo the damage or alleviate the hurt of the victims’ families. In contrast with the popular notion that capital punishment is cheaper than life incarceration, it is more expensive due to longer trials and appeals.

Due to the justice system’s imperfect nature, it is probable that someone will be wrongfully executed on death row. Sometimes evidence is not substantial enough or false testimonies are given, such as in the cases of Larry Swearingen and Domineque Ray, who were executed in 2019. In both cases, evidence that showed innocence was suppressed before execution.  

Capital punishment awards the state with a god-like sense of authority. It puts the question of who deserves to live or die in the hands of the government. 

President Joe Biden is the first U.S. president to openly oppose the death penalty. In lieu of recent killings at the end of Trump’s term, it is time to take action to commute the sentences the 49 people on federal death row and abolish the death penalty. 

Proponents of capital punishment are most often conservative, and they tend to view justice in a more rigid, defined manner. Yet, the right to life movement, which is associated with modern conservatism, had originally included the death penalty on the list of things that devalue human life, alongside euthanasia and abortion.

A society’s morality is often judged on how it views human life. If we view it so cheaply that it can be easily disposed of, even despite cases of wrongful conviction or proven signs of disability, there is no reason to pretend to value it all. We cannot continue to promote the idea that certain rights come with being human if we do not come to the basic agreement that death under any circumstances is wrong. 

Biden has admitted that his Catholic faith, which upholds that the death penalty is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” will shape his policy. It is now up to him to use this morality as a way to show mercy for those we have condemned to die.

This story was written by Lucia Ruffolo. She can be reached at lucia.ruffolo@marquette.edu