I’ve always viewed it a sign of wisdom to demonstrate the ability to change your mind — that goes double if you’re an elected official. As New Mexico’s governor in 2009, I changed my mind regarding the death penalty and signed a bill to abolish it after having supported it for decades. Empirical evidence and common sense convinced me that the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent, is unfairly applied and has become increasingly costly for states.
Since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, the number of wrongly sentenced men and women freed from death row has climbed to 159.
In its 2015 ruling outlawing capital punishment in Connecticut, that state’s supreme court explained why the death penalty is unfair: “the death penalty has been imposed disproportionately on those whom society has marginalized socially, politically, and economically: people of color, the poor and uneducated, and unpopular immigrant and ethnic groups. It always has been easier for us to execute those we see as inferior or less intrinsically worthy.”
The practice is wrong and I hope it isn’t long for this world.
More recently, one method of execution, lethal injection — once seen as “more humane” than others — has made the debate not just one about the morality of the death penalty, but one about the way that it can lead to a failure of governance and damage to a state’s reputation.
As the second-poorest state in our nation, Arkansas sorely needs private investment to boost growth and employment. It’s recent initiative, “Arkansas Inc”, exists to present the state as a “pro-business environment operating leaner, faster and more focused through a streamlined state government.” But at the same time Arkansas is trying to bolster its image as a well-run state, officials rushed to carry out a flurry of executions in April to beat the expiration date of Arkansas’s supply of one of its lethal injection drugs.
Arkansas carried out these lethal injections even though more than 20 firms worldwide now oppose the sale of their products for this use, and have taken steps to effectively close the market for these drugs. This string of executions followed the passage of a law in the state legislature (upheld in the state’s supreme court) giving officials cover to secretly obtain these drugs, whether or not drug makers want to sell them for use in executions.
Several court challenges briefly delayed several of the executions, including one ultimately unsuccessful suit that contended Arkansas purchased the drugs and sought to conceal their intended use.
Pharmaceutical distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical, Inc., a subsidiary of the country’s fifth most successful company, according to Fortune — the type of firm Arkansas should be courting, not battling — sued the state for using “false pretense, trickery, and bad faith.” Two other companies filed supporting legal briefs, arguing the state’s actions were not only anti-business but created “a public-health risk by undermining the safety and supply of lifesaving medicines” that could otherwise be used “to treat 1,800 patients in life-saving operations.” In their effort to push through these executions, state officials needlessly hastened the application of an unjust policy while senselessly placing Arkansas at odds with the private sector.
Delaware hasn’t seen a similar spate of executions, and last year its supreme court struck down the state’s death penalty statute as unconstitutional. But last month, the state’s House of Representatives voted to reinstitute it. As a state that has worked successfully for decades to build an international brand as America’s leading incorporation venue, a major source of its revenue, Delaware could lose if the globally disfavored death penalty once again becomes law.
In the same way that the private sector responded to anti-LGBT laws passed in states such as Indiana and North Carolina, death-penalty states have to recognize that our increasingly small world is watching, and organizing against wrong-headed public policy by redirecting investment dollars.
Escalating costs of prosecuting death-penalty cases also means a higher burden on governments. A report produced for lawmakers in my home state showed it would cost as much as $7.2 million to reintroduce capital punishment. Arkansas, Delaware and other death-penalty states have a choice. They can pursue a just and prudent course, or they can cling to this failed policy even though it hurts their citizens.
As a former ambassador to the United Nations and the sole United States commissioner on the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, I worry about America’s isolation on this critical human rights issue. States that continue to employ the death penalty will remain isolated from the growing international consensus.
The death penalty won’t be abolished by a single judicial decision, legislative act or election cycle, but there are signs that the tide is turning to end it for good. In local elections, notably for district attorney, anti-death penalty candidates — Charles Todd Henderson in Jefferson County, Alabama and Jason Krasner in Philadelphia — are showing they can win. The results coincide with changing public opinion: Last year, Pew Research found public support for the death penalty at a four-decade low.
To effectively represent the interests of citizens, and protect our nation’s role as a global leader, a new generation of policymakers and politicians must put the death penalty to rest once and for all.