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Ethics Paper: Opposition of Death Penalty in California

Thesis

Capital punishment methodologies used for executing convicted criminals has been predisposed to increased risk. Emergent concerns include outdated policies, wrongful convictions, and issues within the practice of execution. Such reasons have led me to oppose the death Penalty in California.

Summary

According to a recent field poll California’s have shown underwhelming support for continuing the death penalty. In fact, since 2011 public support has declined more than thirteen points, to approximately 56 percent. The downward shift has been attributed to the identified system flaws. Replacing the death penalty with life without parole was a few percentage points shy of passage, in 2012 (Death Penalty Information Center, 2014).

When assessing systematic issues in the execution of capital punishment, there are examples such as the California case Chappell versus Ayala (No. 13-1428). This case addressed the conviction of Hector Ayala, convicted in 1989 for three murders. The central issue was whether or not eliminating minorities from the potential juror pool led to constitutional error. Although the California Supreme Court rejected the “constitutional error” claim, the ruling was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The finding was that rejecting any potential minority jurors had a deleterious impact on the rulings outcome (Death Penalty Information Center, 2014).

Another example of errors related to the death penalty includes the case of Wiley Bridgeman, Ricky Jackson, and Kwame Ajamu. All three were convicted in 1973 and sentenced to death after the testimony of a twelve year old boy. After the boy recanted, Jackson and Bridgeman were released on November 21st and Ajamu was released back in 2003. However, by that point both Jackson and Bridgeman had spent thirty-nine years in prison and came within weeks of execution (Death Penalty Information Center, 2014).

Personal Evaluation

In reviewing the Wiley, Bridgeman, Jackson case one glaring systematic flaw is evident. I feel that imprisoning someone for almost forty years prejudicially, is a crime within itself. Therefore in criminal cases where children’s testimony occurs I support the addition of expert testimony. Both State and Federal trials would benefit from research informing jurors of factors impacting the reliability of children’s testimony. In the aforementioned case I believe that the jurors would have benefited from understanding for example how the wording of certain questions could confuse the child witness (Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, 2014).

I also support decisions of States that have either limited or completely eliminated the death penalty. For example New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois and Connecticut (2011) have completely abolished the death penalty. I am shocked that approximately two percent of U.S. counties have overseen the majority of capital punishment cases leading to execution. For example, it’s shameful that Maricopa County Arizona has significantly more death penalty cases than Los Angeles, County (Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, 2014). Such disproportionate data reveals the fact that the majority of counties have pursued more considerate alternatives to addressing criminal cases.

Further, I support steps aimed at reforming the judicial systems approach to use of the death penalty. For example the recently established National Registry of Exonerations has systematically documented incidents of pardons. There have been more than 144 death row exonerations since 1973. According to 2013 data there are approximately ten states including New York, Washington, and California that have recorded capital and non-capital exonerations. Surprisingly as DNA testing has become more common, incidents of non-DNA exonerations has significantly increased (Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, 2014).

I believe California has made some positive steps in the right direction by establishing conviction integrity units (CIU’s). The objective of the CIU’s is to examine capital punishment cases to ascertain whether incidents of improper conviction remain. The fact that in 2012 more than fifty percent of all pardons were the result of law enforcement involvement is significant (Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, 2014).

In my opinion this is what States like California need in order to hold the jurisdictive system accountable. Unfortunately the perception is that any appeals or review process initiated by the defendant is viewed with skepticism. However, when law enforcement engages the process, there is a perception of greater credibility associated with the review process. This also creates a more balanced public perception of law enforcement and their role. Often the media portrays law enforcement at an agency aimed at destroying lives through castigatory means.

Another reason that I oppose the death penalty is because of instances where individuals with intellectual disabilities are wrongfully prosecuted. Therefore I support processes resulting from cases like Atkins versus Virgina. In this case there was sufficient evidence supporting the prohibition of execution for those with verifiable intellectual disability. However, I believe that in order to truly establish legal precedence State’s like California must take the process even further. The court should pursue a more definitive understanding of what constitutes clear and convincing evidence (Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, 2014).

In order for a normative process for understanding intellectual competence to take effect, the courts should take the lead. Absent of such actions the defendant carries the burden of proof. In States like Colorado, Delaware, and Florida, not only is the defendant fighting evidence associated with the case they also must prove intellectual capacity (Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, 2014). In instances such as this the defendant is often unable to sustain an ongoing appeals process due to time constraints, insufficient finance, or other relevant factors.

In determining intellectual capacity of a defendant I support a strict IQ cutoff. Although I believe that the threshold should be supported by scientific evidence, there will be cases with extenuating circumstances. Such cases would include instances where the defendant has other emotional or psychological issues that adversely influenced the associated crime. However, in terms of the measurement of what constitutes normative intellectual capacity I believe it should be an IQ of 75 and above (Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, 2014).

Although this process of an IQ cutoff could initially appear to only support excusing defendants from responsibility it can also lead to conviction. For example if a defendant has an IQ of 75 or above then based on that numerical threshold they should be held accountable for the severity of their criminal actions. Although this may not necessarily mean capital punishment, it should at least establish a fair process of law. The reason why I support 70-75 as the IQ cutoff point, is because it is appropriately aligned with threshold established by The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). According to the AAIDD this is the numerical determination of intellectual disability (Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, 2014).

In conclusion evidence has shown validity regarding the stated thesis. Acknowledging flaws in the legal system is not revolutionary. Historic and legal evidence supports specific reasons why the death penalty is often inappropriate as a form of human punishment. There are countless reports that show widespread domestic and international opposition to the death penalty as a form of punitive response.  This is not to indicate that criminals should not be prosecuted for heinous crimes that are committed. However, when other factors affect the judicial nature and subsequent outcome of a case then changes are necessary.

References

Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee. (2014, June). Irreversible Error: Recommended Reforms for Preventing and Correcting Errors in the Administration of Capital Punishment. Retrieved from http://www.constitutionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Irreversible-Error_FINAL.pdf

Death Penalty Information Center. (2014). PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Death Penalty in California Lowest in 50 Years. Retrieved from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/node/5884

Death Penalty Information Center. (2014). Supreme Court to Review Impact of Eliminating Black and Hispanic Jurors in Captial Case. Retrieved from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/node/5913

Prison Policy Initiative. (2014, November 28). Death Penalty. Retrieved from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/death_penalty/

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