Liberty and Justice for Some: The Death Penalty in America

In my senior year of college, I took a class called American Violence, focusing heavily on the prevalence of capital punishment in the United States. At the time, my professor was doing work with a prisoner on death row in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility named Keith LaMar.

LaMar’s story is a unique one: when he was 19, he was sentenced to life after killing a man who attempted to rob him during a drug deal. Six years into his sentence, LaMar was charged with the murder of a correctional officer during the Lucasville Uprising and was issued the death penalty. Due to an alarming lack of evidence, LaMar’s case is now being contested and has gained attention nationwide. He is currently being held indefinitely in solitary confinement.

LaMar’s story only begins to shed light on the failings of capital punishment. It neglects complexities like race, religion, socioeconomics, and mental health that influence crime, especially in the United States. A study conducted by Amnesty International found that African-American defendants are three times more likely to receive the death penalty than Caucasian defendants.

A similar study revealed that one in ten prisoners executed between 1977 and 2007 suffered from mental illnesses that prevented them from comprehending the nature of their crime or their own impending execution.

Of the 55 countries that still use capital punishment, the United States falls behind China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in frequency of use. We are a nation whose fundamental values are built on ensuring the humanity of its citizens, yet we put ourselves in the company of nations we have disavowed for their corruption, instability, and crimes against humanity.

In many cases outside of the U.S., the death penalty is used as a political tool to inspire fear and discourage revolution. For the United States, capital punishment is not only a means of exacting justice but defended as the ultimate protector of justice.

This is not to say that we haven’t recognized, to a degree, the inhumanity of capital punishment. Take the firing squad for example, which has been effectively outlawed in every state with the exception of Utah. In the rare instance a firing squad is used, it is deliberately designed to protect the mental health of the executioners.

This is done by placing a curtain between the executioners and the prisoner, and loading one of the rifles with a blank. Clearly we recognize that this method of execution has lasting effects, but we seem to believe these effects are exclusive to this method alone. If capital punishment were a conscienable means of retribution, we wouldn’t need such measures to protect against the aftermath.

Despite the number of overturned cases, the data that proves it doesn’t deter crime; despite the internal and external pressure to change, the death penalty still has a place in our justice system. So why do we let it persist?

At the end of the semester, after cultivating a relationship with Keith LaMar, he wrote our class a letter. It was a letter that had profound impact on me. It inspired me to generate change, and I promised to share its message. It was a letter that, until recently, was lost in my closet, unread and forgotten for nearly two years. And even then, I came across it by accident.

This is how we let the death penalty persist. This is how we let any atrocity persist. We afford ourselves the luxury of detachment so we can easily check out when caring becomes too difficult or inconvenient. But we cannot afford to stop caring, especially in our current climate where we seem quicker to exclude, judge, and fear one another.

So I will make good on my promise, and I will spread Keith LaMar’s message: “It’s important that we keep reaching across the distances between us; the better we come to understand each other, through the collective recognition of our mutual humanity, the quicker we can regain our freedom.”

Photo Credits: One, Two, Three, Four 

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